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Sustainable Diversity Requires More than Recruitment

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Alexander J. Thibodeau
The Grand Rapids Lawyer (Grand Rapids Bar Association)
September 20, 2022

This article was published in the September/October 2022 issue of The Grand Rapids Lawyer, the official publication of the Grand Rapids Bar Association.

The legal field has a difficult relationship with diversity. Although most lawyers likely recognize the benefits of a diverse bar, the collective profession has taken a historically obdurate approach to criticisms of its homogeneity. In recent years, however, diversity has become an essential feature of any business looking to compete on a large scale. Indeed, across most industries, there has never been a better time in American history to be a diverse hire.

The law is no exception. We are a client-driven industry and our clients have spoken: a law firm’s composition matters. Recruiting chairs who are paying attention have responded swiftly by hiring diverse associate classes—snatching up the best and brightest with premium compensation packages. In turn, elite law schools have responded with an increased focus on diversity in their recruitment efforts to supply that demand. For example, the Harvard Law School's Class of 2024 boasts a record 56% students of color—Yale is just behind at 54%. This represents a historical and unequivocally positive shift for minority candidates in the law market.

However, there still remains the problem of retaining diverse talent in smaller Midwest markets like Grand Rapids. Despite optimism that the zeitgeist is committed to progress, markets like ours must focus on the sustainability of our diversity initiatives. Once we attract diverse candidates, how do we convince them to stay here?

Diversity initiatives are abundant, but they too often focus solely on composition. The perception of success or failure is determined by the number of census boxes checked on a law firm’s roster. However, with minority attorneys having considerably higher rates of attrition than their majority counterparts, retention of diverse candidates is equally important to recruitment. Hiring diverse associate classes year after year means little if that diversity is not converted into senior leadership roles.

In my view, evincing loyalty from associates has everything to do with two criteria: culture and compensation. Retaining diverse talent requires an introspective and critical approach to firm culture. Often legal employers view being “a good fit” as being able to conform to existing culture. However, conformity is, by definition, at odds with diversity. Further, “culture” is typically marketed using objective values (e.g. hard work, honesty, dedication), while measured using subjective values (e.g hobbies, vernacular, politics, or dress). For the minority candidate, this disconnect can feel like a bait and switch.

Law firms and legal markets must be prepared to accept the ways their culture must change to welcome new perspectives. Indoctrination into a company culture has always been an aspect of firm practice. But to build sustainable diversity, the culture must be inclusive rather than conformist. Sustainability demands a shift from subjective values to objective ones. Sustainable diversity requires frequent perspective taking and radical empathy. The definition of a “good fit” must necessarily change from shared interests to common goals.