Employment Best Practices: Improving Diversity in the Legal Profession Through Hiring and Retention

Coverage of the 2018 Forum on Diversity and Inclusion in the Legal Profession

by Chris Fortier

“Everyone tries to get the top students with the best grades, highest ranks, and the right experience. Those criteria eliminated nearly everyone. You set [up a hiring process] so that you can create a reason for the rejection.” When determining that hiring practices were not yielding the results his organization wanted, Carlos Brown, Esq., found that his organization needed to adjust hiring practices to bring in successful candidates. He noted that at Dominion, “we asked if someone who has 5 years of a certain experience versus having ‘a smart lawyer’ would bring a more diverse pool of applicants to fulfill the goal of diversifying our workforce.”

Session Four of the Forum had a top quality panel focusing on employment issues in the legal profession. From hiring to retention and firm life, the panel outlined issues attorneys face and busted some myths. The panel consisted of Victor Cardwell, Esq., Carlos Brown, Esq. (from Dominion Energy), Cynthia Hudson, Esq., David Harless, Esq., Jessica Childress, Esq., and Candace Blydenburgh, Esq.

Ms. Hudson noted that there are plenty of public sector myths to bust. Recently, she led a team to examine job descriptions in the Attorney General’s office. First, she asked if her office was looking for the right thing. “Are the expectations we set out not meeting our needs?” As a result, her office suspended job performance reviews to free up managers to evaluate if job descriptions were meeting those needs. She found that these job descriptions were from the perspective of an incumbent from years ago.

Ms. Blydenburgh challenged the myth that you can only go to a select number of law schools to hire. She noted that there is a diversity of alma maters among decision makers. She indicated that there is a lot of untapped talent from law schools not represented at major law firms. “There are places where people are just as talented technically but provide richer experiences. There are quality individuals who will succeed and thrive.”

The panel turned to hiring and promotion into firm leadership. Ms. Childress noted her employment history as an associate at global firms where they recruited top schools with minimal diversity. She observed students from schools outside the top 10 outworking the “top students.” “The top school strategy makes recruiting these students on the outside nearly impossible. Associates will ask ‘why are they not hiring more people of color,’ especially when so many attorneys of color are available.” She cautioned that associate attrition happens when attorneys get ignored (by not getting invited to lunch or happy hour). Little gestures such as calling someone a “colleague” as opposed to “associate” boosts someone’s confidence. Ms. Blydenburgh urged inclusivity, noting, “if you are manager, say hello to everyone. Not saying hello to that one person may make them feel excluded.”

When it came to mentorship, Mr. Brown noted that one can find mentors on your own. Potential mentees should provide space to see people’s motives. The goal is to promote strong individuals with great talent. Ms. Childress reminded attendees that people want to feel valued and that a mentor needs to be like the mentee. She urged mentorship programs to get to know potential individuals, especially with life experiences, ambitions, and common interests. Mr. Harless indicated that he is a product of a pipeline, as two local lawyers mentored him in his youth. “Lack of opportunity is a silently prominent issue. If we want our workforce to start looking like communities we serve, we need to examine our basics. The best lawyers are evaluated by who they are and what they value. Law firms need to identify promising young people with desire to become lawyers and guide them to the profession.”

Transparency with your colleagues can go a long way towards retention. Mr. Cardwell shared that he cc’s an individual who has worked on a matter on all subsequent communications so that they see the resolution of the matter. Mr. Harless discussed his philosophy of transparency with his associates at his firm, as they “want to know how I am doing and how my firm is doing.” By having these discussions, everyone at his firm sees how they can fit in the future of the firm. He emphasized the need to drill down with every individual. He urged attendees to ask, “What do they need? How do they feel affirmation? You practice it with that individual.”


Chris Fortier serves on the Board of the Governors of the Diversity Conference, working on the Invictus newsletter and the Diversity Conference website and social media. In his day job, he works at the Social Security Administration (SSA). The views in this article do not reflect those of SSA or the Federal Government.

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