As a young lawyer, Tiffani Lee found a partner who believed in her ability and helped push her up to the top ranks of Miami’s Holland & Knight. Most often, the opposite is true: Organizational mechanisms at firms push out women and people of color.
Those dynamics explain why diversity drops off sharply at the higher levels of law firm management, even though the entry-level workforce at law firms is more diverse than ever before.
But instead of complaining, women and minority lawyers gathered in Miami last week at a Diversity and Flexibility Seminar to offer solutions, share ideas and speak candidly about the changing face of professional services businesses and how diverse talent plays an important role.
“If professional service firms want to sell talent, they need to recruit and keep the best of the entire talent pool,” said Manar Morales, president and CEO of Diversity & Flexibility Alliance, a national forum dedicated to the promotion and retention of women lawyers and work/life control for all attorneys.
Here’s an employer and employee guide for how to navigate the challenges that lead people to leave. It is based on a panel discussion by Miami lawyers.
Lee, an equity partner at Holland & Knight, said partners at her firm are evaluated — and even compensated — based partly on how many opportunities they provide to women and minority associates and what they’ve done to support diversity and inclusion. “The only way to drive change is to factor it into compensation,” Lee says. At her firm, partners “are asked about who is on their team and how they are working with the client to ensure the team is diverse and and how they are supporting the firm’s broader diversity efforts.”
Lee say ties between a commitment to values and compensation happens at all levels. Associates perform a self evaluation, too. They are eligible for a diversity kudos bonus if they have done something extraordinary.
Morales says some firms she has worked with actually detail how much compensation a lawyer lost out on for not being inclusive. “They actually say you would have gotten X, but you got Y because you didn’t work on things we value.”
“We need to change the mindset around flexibility,” Morales says. “When managers hear flexibility, they think people don’t want to work as hard. Flexibility is not just reduced hours but also control over hours. It’s a different way to approach work and people actually achieve increased efficiency.”
Morales advises firms not to put their flexibility program under their women’s initiative, but to make it a firm-wide business issue. “Research shows men want flexibility as much as women.”
At most firms, men are taking advantage of flexibility – although informally and quietly. Morales found at one firm, a senior male partner works from home every Monday, but few realize it. "Flexibility will be embraced when firms encourage people who have power to be open about how and when they use flexibility."
Nikki Lewis Simon, a shareholder at Greenberg Traurig in Miami, says her firm has worked consciously to bring women and minority lawyers into leadership, onto the executive committee and onto committees that interact with senior management. This allows the firm to address issues of the next generation not just years from now, but today.
“I think the next generation of leaders will have a sense of mutual respect: With them, it isn’t us and them, it’s we. There’s an understanding that we all have stuff we want to accomplish outside the office.”
Women tend to give a detailed explanation for why they need to leave early or work from home. “They give much more information than necessary,” says Yuliya Laroe, a lawyer and business coach. Laroe say that often hurts them when partners assume if they don’t see them in the office, they are with their kids. “We need to empower ourselves to believe it’s no one’s business as long as we have met our deliverables.”
Simon, a mother of five, says she advanced to partner while on maternity leave, and has been quite clear about her whereabouts to derail assumptions: “I let them know when don’t see me, it doesn’t mean I’m not working. It just means I’m not working here. I’m doing something to advance cause of the firm.”
In the past, men have had greater success finding sponsors — senior partners who advocate for their advancement. Now firms are considering organized sponsorship programs and becoming more proactive about creating a culture of sponsorship that includes women and minorities.
Lee, at Holland & Knight, has both a formal and an informal mentee. Having a sponsor who transfers his or her creditability to you can be invaluable, she says. Because of unconscious bias, she finds formal sponsorship programs are helpful but take commitment from associates and partners.
Morales tells lawyers to be strategic. “You could have activities that fill your plate but not all give you the same benefit,” she explains, adding that women tend to be on committees that don’t advance their careers. “When you’re asked, think, ‘Will this committee connect me with the right people? Is it valued in the firm? Or, is it just busy work?’”
Leigh-Ann Buchanan, president of the Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. Bar Association, says time management can be an even greater challenge for female black attorneys who put in extra hours to show they deserve to advance. “It’s not enough to be mediocre. I feel I have to exceed the required billable hours,” she says. On top of that, she says she feels pressure to be involved in the community, spend time on business development and navigate law firm politics.
The only way to ensure firms like hers, Berger Singerman in Miami, realize her balancing act is to be up front. “When asked for feedback, be frank. Tell them ‘this is what’s working, this is what’s missing and this is where I need support.’”
Clearly, support for talented women and minorities needs to be evident at all levels. Says Laroe: “People don’t leave firms, they leave individual partners who make staying difficult.”