If you want to build a diverse and profitable law firm: Part II
by Rachelle J. Canter, Ph.D.

(Part I of this article, which discusses the importance of professional development in creating a diverse and profitable law firm, appeared in the last issue of the AILTO Insider.  Part II considers three practices to develop attorneys and simultaneously advance the objectives of firm profitability, equality, and diversity.)

Career Management Programs

The competitive pressures for clients and projects, better service and lower bills, and excellence in relationship building and the  technical practice of law  effectively eradicate the old employment contract, which guaranteed permanent employment in exchange for a lawyer's loyalty, dedication, and hard work.   Now results, not effort or commitment, count.

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

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

Career management not only enhances the individual attorney's abilities, but also is instrumental in building and maintaining a diverse firm.  The Center for Creative Leadership study reported  that poor career planning and lack of organizational savvy are among the primary barriers to advancement for women and minorities.  According to this study, women and minorities are much less likely to be given opportunities for the varied work assignments that would qualify them for senior management roles.  They are also much less likely to have mentors to assist them in making wise career decisions and tend 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 this area is "360-degree" systems that incorporate the full spectrum of performance feedback.   Individual performance is rated by the individual as well as by his or her boss, 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 a client's question) from different perspectives provides a more complete evaluation of performance, and lessens the impact of subjective evaluations based on individual attributes and isolated incidents.

360-degree feedback provides a 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.  360-degree feedback also counteracts the strong tendency to hire and promote people in one's own image.  Whereas subjective evaluations can deny opportunities to women and minorities, an  objective, standard, and comprehensive performance evaluation system promotes a more level playing field with rewards and recognition for excellence and results.

A 1993 study by the Wyatt Company, found that approximately 25% of U.S. corporations use some form of 360-degree feedback.  This figure is undoubtedly much higher today.  Industry leaders use 360-degree feedback even  more often:  Fortune magazine reported  that 63% of companies ranked number one in their industry  use 360-degree  feedback (e.g., Morgan Stanley, Merck, Levi Strauss, Hewlett Packard, Proctor & Gamble, Herman Miller).

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

>Management Training for Partners

Promotion to partner in law firms is primarily based on business development and technical expertise,  rather than on  management ability.  Once a partner, there is little training in how to manage, even though much of a partner's time is spent managing projects, people (staff and clients), and time.  Firms would not permit attorneys to practice law without proper legal training, yet they are largely permitted to practice management with little or no training. 

Contrary to law firm assumptions, managers and leaders are made and not born. The research findings, the multitude of training options, and the large and widespread corporate investments in management and leadership training attest to this fact.  The lack of management training hinders continual professional development and compromises the ability of partners and those they manage to do their best work.

The enormous pressures of practice 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 oversight has a significant impact on quality and service, upon which a firm's reputation, and ultimately, profitability and success are based.

An effective management training program should allow  active participation and include  practice in  new management tools and 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 program of management development.  This makes training relevant and practical, rather than a theoretical exercise for which partners lack the time or motivation.


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

This article originally appeared in the Winter 1998 issue of AILTO Insider (Volume 11, Issue 1), a publication of The American Institute for Law Training within the Office, a project of the ALI-ABA Committee on Continuing Professional Education in cooperation with the ABA Standing Committee on Continuing Education for the Bar.  Copyright © 1998 American Institute for Law Training within the Office.  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 Institute for Law Training within the Office