Here's how law firms can break down racial and gender barriers to making partner

Laura Newpoff
Yvette McGee Brown, global partner-in-charge of diversity, inclusion and advancement, Jones Day

As leaders at law firms continue to have conversations about how to make the profession more diverse, finding ways to help women and minorities rise to the rank of partner has become a major item on the to-do list. 

That’s because industry data show that less than 25 percent of firm partners are women, 9.13 percent are racially or ethnically diverse and 3.19 percent are racially or ethnically diverse women. It’s also because, according to the American Bar Association, there are several benefits to boosting diversity, including raising quality, enhancing a firm’s reputation and supporting external diversity and inclusion efforts. 

Improvement can come in the form of helping associates develop mentorships and connections inside the firm and within clients’ organizations and at boards in the community. Those relationships can help them build their books of business and do meaningful work to solve clients’ problems. Improvement also can come in the form of retaining lawyers so they stay around long enough to advance their careers. If successful, a more diverse roster of partners will serve as inspiration to young women and minority associates about what’s possible.

That’s according to Columbus region lawyers who participated in Columbus CEO magazine’s quarterly Diverse Leaders in Law forum in January. The most recent discussion focused on how firms can remove obstacles from the paths of young women attorneys and attorneys of color who aspire to become partners. The panelists were:

  • Yvette McGee Brown, global partner-in-charge of diversity, inclusion and advancement, Jones Day
  • Terri Meldrum, senior vice president and general counsel, OhioHealth
  • David Paragas, partner, Barnes & Thornburg
  • Jennifer Readler, member, Frost Brown Todd

The following are excerpts from the conversation, which have been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Power of mentorship

Paragas, who is Asian-American, began his career at a small regional firm and was the only lawyer in its Columbus office. That sense of isolation led him to seek out a role model who he would design his practice after. Wanting to specialize in legislative affairs, he reached out to attorney Rocky Saxbe, a partner at Taft Law who is well-connected among Ohio’s political class. 

“He says to me, ‘Become an expert in something … talk about it and let people know that you do it,” Paragas says. “And that’s how I started to develop my book of business.” 

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Paragas came to realize how important mentorship and being a role model to other attorneys was because of that experience. He advocates for associates to have mentors within their practice group or discipline to help them develop, a mentor in the community to navigate social service and volunteerism and a mentor the associate works with on a board. 

“When you’re working side-by-side with the CEOs or the general counsels at that board table, you’re equivalent regardless of what their ages [are] because you’re there for a common purpose,” Paragas says. “That opens a lot of doors and it teaches [the lawyer] a lot about organizations.”

Meldrum says mentors also could come from within the firm’s client base. 

“There are a lot of in-house lawyers in large legal departments in large organizations across the city that could help associates gain perspective about the approach he or she should look for,” she says.

Keeping an eye on job satisfaction

Moving from associate to partner is a process that can take from five to seven years to become a junior partner and up to 15 years to become a senior partner, job site reports. Many associates will decide not to wait around that long, however. A recent study of more than 800 law firms found that they lost 15 associates for every 20 they hired. And the cost of losing an associate, legal search firm Major Lindsey & Africa reports, can average $200,000 to $500,000 considering recruiting and training costs and other factors. 

Readler says ongoing dialogue with associates about the expectations of both parties can help with job satisfaction. Flexibility about demanding work schedules and external pressures like childcare is also critical to improve retention. 

“We need to have constant check-ins to make sure they’re on the track they want to be [and] that they are satisfied,” she says. “It’s our obligation to make those things happen so that [what] we have is in everybody’s best interest if you have somebody who is doing well, thriving in the organization.”

McGee Brown says some associates may have issues with a partner where they feel overly criticized no matter what they do. She recommended developing a network of peers outside of the firm to level set. She suggested asking: What advice do you have for me? Is this normal behavior? Why do you think he’s treating me this way? “It allows (the associate) to hear from a neutral source who is not inside (their) law firm,” she says.

Showing support

Law firms have made strides over the years to accommodate the needs of their attorneys who juggle demanding work schedules. When Readler had her daughter 15 years ago, the child’s father also was an attorney at the time. She took three months off and he took off two days. 

“Fast forward to this past year—we had four male associates in my group each take two-month maternity leaves,” says Readler, who is law director for the city of Dublin. “I think that speaks volumes for finally getting a little bit more equity in more parent leave than just everything (that’s) expected to be on the mother.”

With ongoing advancements in technology, there’s more flexibility for firms to allow associates to carve out their own kind of day if they have children, for example, she says. The pandemic has only enhanced the importance of work schedule flexibility.

“You know, I don’t care where you are—if you’re in the office, if you’re at home, what time of day you’re working on things,” Readler says. “I want them to be happy because, again, we want to develop people who are happy in the firm who can provide value in the way that they can and with the most flexibility.”

In addition to the pandemic, issues of racial injustice are causing firms to examine how they can support employees during difficult times. McGee Brown says her firm has worked to create a sense of community so employees feel connected. Several affinity groups help diverse lawyers do just that. Going forward, more diversity in the partner ranks will only inspire members of minority communities to think they can succeed.

“When they come into a firm, they need to be able to look up and see what success looks like,” McGee Brown says. “If they don’t see people in the leadership who look like them who are succeeding in the firm, it’s hard for them to believe they can be successful, too.” 

Laura Newpoff is a freelance writer.

Action items

Here’s what firms and established attorneys can do to improve retention of attorneys from diverse backgrounds.

Grow your network
Take a look at your LinkedIn. What percentage of your network is of color? Commit to start building a network of others. 

If you have power
Commit to reaching out to a diverse person to sponsor them in their career. 

Seek a mentee
Find someone outside your network to assist. 

Serve on a board or give time and talent to organizations and causes in the community. You will meet interesting and diverse people.

Jennifer Readler, member, Frost Brown Todd