The why and the how.  A practical guide for law firms.

In 2019 I took an enormous career jump by moving from a small firm in Louisville to a much larger firm in Washington.  One of the first cases I worked on in my current role was not one that a brand new hire would typically be involved in but it turned out, I was the only person of 125 employees that could speak to the relative size and general operation of a 90 horse John Deere 6230; and in fact had a photo of one in my phone with my dad and daughter in it, for size comparison.  The visual was very helpful for the Mediator to get an understanding of the facts of the case.  That clarity of scale and understanding of operation helped my team secure a $200,000.00 settlement at mediation.  This is an example of diverse backgrounds being helpful on a legal team.  Did GLP hire me because I knew about farming equipment?  I would think not, but it turned out to be pretty helpful.  This is the kind of benefit that comes from having a staff with diverse backgrounds.  You never know where valuable insights will come from.  

Varied perspectives isn’t the only benefit to a diverse work place.  Research tells us that diversity of teams leads to more innovation, higher morale, and more creative problem-solving.[1] 

Whether you are looking to increase your knowledge of farm equipment or you just need some more perspectives, this article will discuss some practical steps and guidance for sourcing great talent and limiting expensive turn over. 

Recruiting

Where are you looking when you start a candidate search?  If you are like most firms, the first thing you do is ask around.  You ask for an internal referral, you send out an email to your network or you post on Linked In.  “I am looking for a bright, hard-working paralegal to join my team.  Must have 3-5 years of probate experience and be a team player” Does that sound familiar?  Maybe the next thing you do is post the job online.  Maybe you use Linked in, Indeed, or the job board at your local University or Bar Association.  You gather resumes for a few weeks and call your favorite ones to come in for an in person interview. 

If your goal is to find the best person for the job with an eye toward diversity then the first change you can make to your recruiting practice is to source candidates from diverse places.  The right person for the job may not have your network, and in fact sourcing from your network may perpetuate lack of diversity.  The right person for the job may not know people who are in the industry either because they are a first generation college graduate, they are from out of state, or they didn’t spend much time networking because they were raising children, caring for parents, or working full time in their first career while their cohorts were meeting new people.  Consider using an outside party that specializes in sourcing diverse candidates or working with a recruiter who specializes in that space.  Alternatively, you can seek to post at schools that are in diverse geographies or on job boards that attract diverse candidates.  You should not feel limited to the state or city in which your firm is head quartered.  Additionally, you can include in your job descriptions that you value and promote diversity at your firm. You may also consider offering workplace flexibility.  Flexible hours are attractive to working parents.  Flexible office arrangements may alleviate long commute times to downtown office locations, which are often correlated with more diverse neighborhoods.

Lastly, evaluate and recognize your own “pedigree bias”.  Ask yourself if you prefer to hire people whose parents are lawyers, people who went to a certain school, or people who live within a certain distance of your firm.

Language Matters

The language of your job posting matters.  Look carefully at the language you are using to source candidates.  Women and minorities tend to self-select out if they do not check 100% of the listed boxes.  If you list a skill or qualification in your job posting, be sure that that skill or qualification is actually a requirement.  If it is a preference, identify it as such, or better yet, remove it completely.  

As you prepare to interview candidates, evaluate your procedures for selection.  Do you have a written policy that indicates to interviewers how they should rank or prefer candidates?  Do you have unwritten policies?  Your process for selecting candidates from a pool of interviewees should address all of the required job skills as well as “intangibles” such as kindness, empathy and willingness to ask for help.  I find behavioral based interview questions to be the most useful in my practice.[1]  The best indicator of future behavior is past behavior.  As an added bonus, you will get a sneak peek into your candidate’s ability to engage in storytelling.

The more subjective the criteria, however, the more prone it is for unconscious bias to creep in.  Find mechanisms to build into your processes to check for bias and train your interviewers.  Carefully vet your job descriptions, review your hiring practices, and create initiatives around removing unconscious bias from your practices.  Often it is difficult to self-diagnose where bias is infused in your practices.  Get feedback from your staff and consider hiring outside auditing resources.

Retention

Great job!  You hired a fantastic candidate!  Now what?

Building a diverse and inclusive workforce is meaningless if you cannot retain your talent.  Not only do you want to keep your candidates for continuity of service, but turnover is expensive.  The number one way to keep your talent is to train them.    People like to be good at what they are doing.  People like to feel competent and valued. 

You must onboard your new employee and immediately connect them with a mentor.  Post onboarding, consider other strategies to support retention of diverse candidates:

-Take steps to minimize unconscious bias.  Evaluate the language you and others in your firm use both in written communications and in verbal ones:

-Measure and reward:  Make maintaining a diverse workforce a measurable expectation for management teams.

-Support and work with affinity and diversity based groups:

-Communicate, communicate, communicate.  Have frequent one on one check ins to reinforce training and expectations both of and from the employee.  Be proactive about concerns that come up in these communications.

Diversity and Inclusion is a journey.  It is not a percentage, it is not a quota, it is using processes that are free from bias against (or for) any particular group.  Whether that group is men, women or University of Kentucky graduates. Diversity and inclusion does not get accomplished by check the box training or putting out a mission statement. It is done by investing in reviewing your practices and policies, training, and implementing conscious choices to alter the status quo. 

Candidates from diverse backgrounds can mean gender differences, racial differences, socioeconomic differences, cultural differences, age differences, and a host of other differences.  The more diversity that makes up your team, the more perspectives you have to draw from.  Not only will varied perspectives help you build the very best case for your client, it will help you connect with your jury.

If these outcomes sound appealing to you but you still don’t’ know where to start, that’s okay!  Most firms are not experts in this area.  If you want to learn more or hire and expert to help you devise and execute a plan, check out these resources:

Diversity University  (http://diversity-u.com).  They help develop initiatives in the diversity space for law firms, implement trainings, review job descriptions, help source diverse employees, and much more.

https://drjohnsullivan.com/.  This website has a phenomenal collection resources and articles.