Many senior partners in law firms ascribe to the notion that new attorneys will “sink or swim” in their organization; that the good ones with potential will outperform the rest. Underlying this deeply entrenched belief is the notion that they were swimmers; they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and succeeded on their own merits and everyone else should too.
What actually happens is that some attorneys swim – but only because they get swimming lessons and water wings; they even get life rings thrown at them when they make mistakes. Those without this favored status are left to drown and soon leave the firm. Without the benefit of the (largely hidden) opportunities given to the select few, it is soon clear that there is no real hope for advancement in the firm.
Eight national research studies demonstrate that female, LGBT, and racially/ethnically diverse lawyers are disproportionately left out when it comes to the intangible but critical opportunities given to the usual favorites.
It is time the legal profession come to terms with this favoritism, caused by affinity bias (an unconscious preference for others who are like you and share common backgrounds and interests). Indulging in this convenient myth is keeping the legal profession from optimizing talent and achieving business goals.
What has been lost in the intense dialogue about Sheryl Sandberg’s new book is that “leaning in” is only one aspect of the change needed to fully include and advance women in the workplace. According to research by McKinsey & Company, there are four major barriers to women’s advancement:
- Structural obstacles
- Lifestyle choices
- Institutional mind-sets (bias, stereotypes, and ingrained notions of what types of behaviors leaders exhibit)
- Individual mind-sets (women holding themselves back)
Once again, the debate will center on what’s wrong with women and how they have to change to advance, not on what needs to change within organizations – structural obstacles and institutional mind-sets. The McKinsey research suggests that the latter are the most important but difficult to overcome: “Of all the forces that hold women back, however, none are as powerful as entrenched beliefs.” The top structural barriers for women include their lack of:
- role models
- access to informal networks, and
- sponsors in upper management who create opportunities for them.
Organizations can and should focus considerable resources on eliminating these systemic roadblocks by instituting an inclusiveness initiative.
Resist the temptation to blame women for not “leaning in” and get busy creating systemic change to support their advancement.
The ABA Journal recently covered Georgetown Law School’s new study of culture in mid-size law firms which found that leaders in those firms believe their strong culture gives them a competitive advantage in attracting laterals.
Reconcile that with data from the National Association of Legal Career Professionals (NALP) indicating that mid-size law firms lag behind larger and smaller firms when it comes to diversity.
The disconnect – failing to understand that culture has everything to do with diversity results. Most mid-size firms are still engaged in traditional 20th Century diversity efforts – recruiting female and diverse candidates – but haven’t evolved to incorporate inclusiveness as a strategy to retain and advance female and diverse attorneys.
Inclusiveness and fundamental changes to the firm’s culture are required to make diversity sustainable. When will mid-size firms make the connection and create cultures of inclusion to attract, retain, and advance women and racially/ethnically diverse attorneys?