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The divide in diversity between law firms and in-house legal

Posted by: Laurence Simons 09/04/14

I have worked as a legal recruiter for many years, and I have recruited for associate and partner positions at law firms as well as for in-house legal departments at all levels. Having placed lawyers both in corporate legal departments (in-house) and at law firms, I can compare the two quite easily. If we contrast law firms who hire lateral attorneys and in-house legal departments that compete for the same talent, we find that corporations are better at recruiting women and minorities than law firms. Not that I'm taking sides.

Diversity as a high priority

To be clear, there is little doubt that the resolve exists on both sides of the legal hiring coin. I believe that law firms understand and genuinely work to encourage diversity in their ranks as much as corporations do. I am happy to say that I no longer have to pitch diversity as a good idea in hiring: it is fairly well-established that a diverse pool of employees is a better pool of employees. We have defined the conventional wisdom regarding diversity in the workplace, and we are agreed.

As much as we all agree that diversity is important, I would be surprised if anyone took the position that law firms have evolved far enough. I suggest that law firms look at the corporate in-house world for an outline to increase the effectiveness their diversity efforts.

What corporations do:  They get motivated.

There are several reasons why corporations are better at maintaining diversity recruitment than law firms. First, many multinationals conduct business with government agencies who require them to put an aggressive plan in place to facilitate hiring without discrimination and to encourage minority recruitment. Publicly held corporations are subject to a great deal of scrutiny, so their hiring practices must be refined, evaluated, and tested on a regular basis. Depending on the business, there are specific regulations guiding a corporation's recruitment strategy.

Why Corporations are better evolved than law firms with diverse recruitment

The Human Resources Department of a corporation is tasked with hiring more than just lawyers. In fact, hiring lawyers may constitute a small percentage of the total employees evaluated and/or hired by the company. Thus, corporations are accustomed to competing with their rivals for talent in a variety of fields. Because of the breadth of experience that a Human Resources Department has, their recruitment is simply better evolved than the niche recruitment industry inside of law firms. Read more.

Develop a plan for diversity recruitment, not a promise

In general, we see law firms developing similar commitments to diversity, written the same way and in the same context as corporations. We receive letters from our clients with one or two sentences reminding us that they are an equal opportunity employer. We receive specific requests for candidates for a role with a note that it would be nice to see women and minorities, but not to the exclusion of other candidates. Our law firm clients are generally quite good at letting us, the recruiter, know that diversity is important. I have been impressed with the ubiquity of the references my law firm clients make to the importance of diversity hiring.

"A little less conversation, a lot more action" 

What do I mean by that? Corporations talk about diversity hiring, too. Certainly, corporations are just as likely to use the language about a desire to see female and minority candidates as their law firm colleagues. However, corporations are more likely to back up their story with an action plan for recruitment. As recruiters, we often have conversations with our in-house clients, with whom we must answer specific questions in the context of looking at women and minority candidates. We'd like to see more of those conversations between law firms and their recruiting partners.

How law firms can learn from In-house

Corporate clients ask us to specify exactly what we do to identify and recruit diverse candidates. We are given information about the organization's track record, motivation, and future plans with respect to diversity in the workplace. We have specific and detailed conversations designed to ensure that qualified diverse candidates are making up a meaningful portion of the candidate pool for any particular role. Read more.

Metrics are meaningful

Corporations love metrics. How many diverse candidates were presented for a specific role? How many were interviewed? Who was hired? These metrics, when quantified across a large organization, help define the direction and effectiveness of an organization's commitment to diversity.

Certainly, some law firms ask for voluntary disclosures from candidates for their positions. This, while satisfying some regulatory requirements, will also aid an organization in benchmarking how successful they are in attracting diverse candidates. However, once collected, what is being done with this information? 

Pushing the Process

While law firm recruitment is more diversity-focused than it has been historically, the need to push forward in evolving the hiring function is not going away anytime soon.  Luckily, there are some great ways to improve this organizationally, and they are just a phone call away. A law firm's biggest clients are putting some great recruitment techniques in place and gaining momentum in their own diversity recruitment. Maybe just this once, law firms might want to call their clients for advice.