Building a Diverse and Profitable Law Firm
by Rachelle J. Canter, Ph.D.

Diversity in the workplace brings a number of benefits, including an  expanded pool of talent and perspectives, an increased richness in a firm's resources and services, and an increasingly heterogeneous workforce and client base.

While recognition of these benefits has grown,  the strategies to build diversity and profitability have been quite separate.  The dual objectives of diversity and profitability can, however, be achieved using three professional development practices: career management, 360-degree performance feedback, and management training.


Career Management Programs

The competitive pressures for clients, better service and lower bills, and excellence in the relationship-building and technical practice of law have effectively eradicated the old employment contract.  That contract guaranteed permanent employment in exchange for loyalty, dedication, and hard work.   Now what counts is results, not effort or commitment.

The new employment contract, largely unused by the legal profession,  emphasizes shared responsibility for individual employability inside or outside of the organization.   Employability is a function of an individual's portable skills and marketable accomplishments which can be sold to employers.The organization is responsible for providing the tools and resources for career management.

Shedding the paternalistic view of the firm requires more than encouraging a lawyer to find another job or improve analytical or interpersonal skills.  Whether the objective is making partner, improving performance, or changing jobs, making successful career transitions requires knowledge of appropriate career goals and current versus required skills, as well as the ability to develop and implement a plan to realize career goals.

Career management enhances a lawyer's abilities and is also instrumental in building and maintaining a diverse firm.  The Center for Creative Leadership study reported that poor career planning and lack of organizational savvy were among the primary barriers to advancement for women and minorities. 

According to this study, women and minorities are much less likely to be given opportunity for the varied work assignments that would qualify them for senior management roles.  They were also less likely to have mentors to assist them in making wise career decisions,  and they tended to have less understanding of how to get along and get ahead.  Programs emphasizing career self-reliance and employability help shift some of the responsibility for career management to the individual, providing a greater sense of competence and confidence.


360 Degree Performance Feedback

Law firms have not taken full advantage of the advances in the field of performance feedback, despite evidence that job-related feedback improves performance and that lack of feedback is a major contributor to derailment, particularly for women and minorities.

The biggest development in the field is 360-degree systems which incorporate the full spectrum of performance feedback.  Individual performance is rated by the individual, as well as by the supervisor, peers, subordinates, and sometimes even clients. 

Using multiple raters who have directly observed an individual's behavior  (such as taking a deposition or responding to client questions) provides a more complete evaluation of performance.  It also corrects for common rating errors and large individual differences in the ability to evaluate performance.  Judgments of potential and of promotability are frequently characterized by subjective evaluations based on individual attributes and isolated incidents. 

Using 360-degree feedback provides a formal and standard method and summary reviews of performance.  A partner who evaluates an associate harshly due to one poorly written brief, does not have the final word; associates who may have more day-to-day exposure to peer performance also have input.  In fact, research shows that peers have the most reliable information about each other's performance.

In addition, 360-degree feedback counteracts the strong tendency to hire and promote people in one's own image.  The prevalence of subjective evaluations tends to deny opportunities to women and minorities.   An objective, standard, and comprehensive performance evaluation system promotes a level playing field with rewards and recognition for excellence and results.

Feedback alone, even 360-degree, does not produce change.  Lasting change occurs incrementally and over time.  Traditional feedback systems provide feedback on past performance, generally on an annual basis.  The 360-degree systems emphasize ongoing action planning to guide improvement efforts, follow-up, and frequent feedback on performance throughout the year.


Management Training for Partners

Promotion to partner in law firms is based on business development, and sometimes technical expertise, rather than management ability.  Once a lawyer is made partner, there is little training in how to manage. Firms would not permit lawyers to practice law without proper legal training, yet lawyers are largely permitted to practice management with little or no training. 

Contrary to law firm assumptions, managers and leaders are made and not born. Research findings, the multitude of training options, and the widespread corporate investments in management and leadership training attest to this.  Lack of management training hinders continual professional development, which is as important for partners as for associates.  It compromises the ability of partners and those they manage to do their best work.

The enormous pressures tend to focus partners' attention on technical issues in which they are well trained, and often lead to inadequate attention to other areas, such as performance coaching and feedback.  This has a significant impact on quality and service -- factors on which a firm's reputation, and ultimately, its profitability and success, are based.

An  effective management training program should involve active participation and new management tools as well as action plans for their implementation.  Evidence from a leading study of executive learning found that on-the-job assignments were a major source of learning.  These assignments, often involving a significant change in responsibilities, can challenge and stretch a manager, if strategically incorporated into a management development program.  This makes training relevant and practical, rather than a theoretical exercise for which partners lack the time or motivation.


Conclusions

The objective of career management, 360-degree performance feedback, and management training programs is to increase the professional contributions made by all lawyers, including women and minorities.   Combined, these development practices can enhance the skills, performance, and ultimately, the profitability of firms.   The time has come for the legal profession to take notice and take advantage of professional development as the key to diversity and profitability.


This article originally appeared in the Fall 1997 issue of Practice Development and Marketing  (Volume 8,  Issue 1), a publication of the American Bar Association.  Copyright © 1997 American Bar Association.  All rights reserved.  This information of any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.