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Law Firms and Black History: Why Black Associates Leave Firms and What You Can Do About It

Black lawyer resigning

The Black associates who left your firm are a part of your firm’s Black history, and let’s be frank, they likely left because of the lack of value placed on them, the lack of professional development they received, or the lack of nurturing and investment in them. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. If law firm leaders actually commit to fostering an inclusive culture that encourages belonging and demands accountability, they can change this dynamic. As a result, their firm’s Black associates will stay, grow, and elevate to the partnership, truly becoming a part of the current impact and future Black History achievements.  

Efforts towards inclusion should be both individual and institutional. Lasting change doesn’t just happen as the result of wishes and prayers. It requires real effort, significant resources, difficult conversations, and constantly monitoring initiatives. 

THE STATUS QUO  

Over the past two years, in response to the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor (and too many others), law firms have focused on Black lawyers by increasing diversity recruiting efforts and adding diversity programming. The pandemic further amplified the need for this focus, as many Black associates began to think differently about staying within toxic law firm cultures. Exclusion efforts towards Black lawyers (whether conscious or unconscious) included experiencing racial microaggressions and not being nurtured, developed, supported, or given constructive and actionable feedback. These actions—or lack of actions—have led to significant attrition and revolving doors at law firms.  

I was going to include the many disappointing law firm diversity stats, but you can view them here and see them discussed here. This is not solely a story of numbers. We have to make these diversity and inclusion efforts personal and, as lawyer and social justice advocate Bryan Stevenson says, we have to “get proximate” with the issue. Things are not changing because institutions and structures are not changing. “We’ve always done it that way”, “If we increase diversity, we’ll lower standards”, and “They don’t fit here” are all false narratives that are surfaced to maintain the status quo. These need to be challenged and changed to improve law firm culture. 

STRATEGIES TO CONSIDER AND REFLECT ON

So, in order to make it so that your Black associates become a part of your firm’s current Black History achievements, start to commit to doing things differently when it comes to diversity initiatives. Here are four areas you should consider as you reflect on and implement your strategy. 

Education: If your law firm is not engaging in consistent and mandatory diversity training, this should be a part of your inclusion strategy…NOW. Encouraging leaders to advance inclusion without providing the foundational knowledge of diversity and inclusion terminology, concepts, and best practices doesn’t work. In fact, it often causes additional trauma to Black associates rather than supporting their success. 

Impactful Mentorship: In law firms, often Black associates are either not mentored effectively or they are over-mentored and under-sponsored. It’s one thing to tell someone how to navigate a path (skills, professional development, feedback, etc.) but it is entirely different to say, “Not only am I going to show you how to navigate, I’m going to lead you along this path”. Mentorship across differences requires vulnerability, risk, and investment. 

Strategic Sponsorship: When Black associates are sponsored properly, their professional trajectory shifts. What does this mean in practice for a law firm sponsor? You elevate the associate’s name, skill set, and value proposition when they are not in the room. And, you prioritize their success by identifying and providing access and growth opportunities within your sphere of influence. 

Providing Affinity Spaces: Having the opportunity to convene for professional development, social engagement, and emotional support is imperative for retaining Black associates. If your firm has not set up a Black ERG (Employee Resource Group) you should consider developing a pilot to launch this initiative. If you don’t have sufficient representation to convene a group segmented by race/ethnicity, consider establishing an affinity group comprised of members of various under-represented groups and perhaps planning an annual diversity retreat focused on the needs identified by the group members.  

You can do these things and still have attrition. Yes, your favorite Black associate may leave. Instead of staying at your firm, Black associates may leave to go to firms who are more committed to inclusion or they may take roles as in-house counsel, in the government, or with one of your clients. Keep trying.

CHANGE IS POSSIBLE WITH VISION, BRAVERY, EMPATHY, AND HUMILITY

The reality is that in many of the law firms that I’ve worked with, the disconnect between stated intent and the actual impact shows up when leaders are not held accountable. Inclusion efforts are not easy and they require discomfort and risk. While these shifts are challenging, when they are executed with vision, empathy, humility, and bravery, they work and they benefit all. 

So, which path of Black History are you willing to take for your Black associates at your firm? Fill out the form below to get our list of individual and institutional reflection questions, in the form of a checklist, to help you assess your current efforts towards supporting Black associates. If you want to explore how to do this better through training, inclusive leadership coaching, and/or support with your strategy, reach out to me at https://www.paulaedgar.com/news/#contact.  

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