Attracting & Retaining Legal Talent: Insights from LegalWeek 2018

Topics: Client Relations, Government, Law Firms, Leadership, LegalWeek, Talent Development, Women’s Leadership Blog Posts

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NEW YORK — At the LegalDiversity & Talent Management Forum, (part of ALM’s Legalweek New York 2018), dozens of talent management professionals from law firms and corporate law departments came together to discuss the market challenges involved in recruiting, developing, and retaining talent in the 21st century.

To put this in context, one panelist shared some numbers:

  •        The average age of general counsel is 45;
  •        In 1980, about 26% of licensed attorneys were under the age of 35; and
  •        Today, the number of licensed attorneys under the age of 30 is 4%.

Students seeking advanced degrees today are not seeing law schools as a viable option. With the statistics noted above, the industry’s competition for new talent is incredibly tight. And for those students that do go to law school, many of them are not expecting to spend their entire working life at a law firm. On the extreme case, one panelist from a law school noted that students ask her, “How long do I have to work in a firm before I can get out?”

The Competency Model: Different, but the Same

Throughout the day, there was a big focus on competency models. In fact, all speakers agreed there was a need for transparency in established competency requirements for entry-level attorneys. For example, on the corporate side, one panelist noted critical thinking, leadership and communication as very important. On the law firm side, needed competencies ranged from writing, analysis, critical thinking, practice management, and leadership, including inclusive behaviors and cultural competency.

One law firm panelist shared that there was a difference set of competencies for full-time associates, that included: i) research, analysis, and judgment; ii) workload management and supervision; iii) oral and written communication; iv) firm citizenship; v) professional development; and vi) business development. These competencies differed from what the firm looked for during the on-campus recruiting process — interpersonal skills, initiative, and judgment.

The voice of the client even made it into the competency discussion when several panelists made the point that competencies needed to evolve based on what clients want. As an example, one firm consulted its clients to ask what competencies they look for — not surprisingly, there was very little overlap. The most-needed competencies in clients’ eyes were: i) business acumen; ii) process improvement; iii) technology; iv) project management; and v) efficiency.

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There was also much debate over the challenges posed by the outdated criteria that big law firms use to screen candidates — grades, law school prestige, bar exam score, etc. As long as Big Law continues to use the prestige of the law school, GPA and Bar exam score for its main hiring criteria, the diversity of lawyers will continue to be a challenge, panelists explained. The most succinct view on this subject was simply: “Elitism can stifle innovation.”

Moreover, these criteria are not very good predictors of who will be a successful lawyer and what lawyers will be the best rainmakers, although one panelist made the point that grades are an indicator of good research and analysis skills in first-year associates. On the other hand, one law firm noted its most successful lawyers have had work experience before law school, including in the military, and demonstrated at least one interest outside of school, such as student athletics.

Attracting & Retaining Diverse Talent

Throughout the day, the challenge of attracting and retaining minority talent was discussed. One individual indicated that to ensure the success of your talent, an organization must have top-down and bottom-up approaches. From the top, your talent strategy must be aligned with the business strategy. Moreover, expectations of those involved in executing talent management must adhere to expectations and behaviors outlined at every phase of the lifecycle of talent: recruiting, onboarding, matter assignments, professional development, career development, performance evaluation, attrition, and alumni.

Once minority talent is hired, there must be a commitment to monitoring what clients and matters to which the diverse lawyers are getting assigned, the type of work they are doing on the matters, and their rates of utilization, panelists explained. There must also be a commitment by the talent management execution team and an expectation of accountability and responsibility for minority lawyers’ development in the delivery of quarterly feedback conversations.

To support the retention of diverse talent, it is critical for each practice area leader to own the development of the associates in her or his practice with available tools. One such tool is a scorecard that reports on key metrics of all diverse talent from recruitment to promotion to attrition, broken down by office and practice group.

What Does Cultural Fit Mean?

At the Forum, there was a lot of discussion about the meaning of “cultural fit” — far too often, this phrase adversely impacts attorneys of color during the recruiting and promotion process.

In fact, one panelist noted that recruiting programs at elite institutions in Big Law were created “for white men and has mostly been successful for white men,” which is why there is a lack of diversity and a prevalent unconscious bias at play during the recruiting process. To rectify this, she advocated using blind selection in resumé review and writing tests.

Similarly, another panelist noted institutional bias in recruiting because most heads of recruiting at Big Law firms are white, and in order to remove bias from the recruiting process, the evaluation committee has to be diverse.

Bias in the talent evaluation process was also heavily discussed by the panelists. Indeed, a study completed by Dr. Arin Reeves, a lawyer, sociologist and president of Nextions, found in a recent study of 22 law firms that partners were less critical of a junior lawyer’s draft memo if they were told the lawyer was white than if they were told the lawyer was African-American.

Looking back on the entirety of the Forum, the most important takeaway I thought was the critical importance of “cultural” competency. While many firms have cultural competency training, according to one panelist, it is very much in its infancy within the legal profession.