Rethinking Diversity: Tackle the “Pipeline Problem” by Tapping into Overlooked Talent

There is perhaps no hotter topic—and seemingly intractable problem—in the legal profession today than that of the diversity gap. Despite good intentions, client incentives, innovative ideas, best practices guides, tech tools, and a host of surveys, initiatives, benchmarks, and trainings, true diversity and inclusion continues to elude law firms throughout the country.

Women attorneys, attorneys of color, LGBTQ attorneys, attorneys with disabilities, and other diverse or minority attorneys still lag behind when it comes to hiring, retention and promotion in law firms.

Is there anything left to try that might move the needle? Yes, and it involves nothing more than seeing the potential in what is already here.

This blog rethinks aspects of the legal profession’s diversity and inclusion problem. In this case, the focus is on the often-cited “pipeline problem,” which refers to the apparent dearth of qualified diverse candidates entering the profession or coming up through its ranks. Most people agree that the pipeline problem is to a large extent caused by systemic economic, racial, social and gender imbalances, as well as structural factors such as implicit bias, insufficient mentoring, and lack of diverse attorneys in leadership roles.

The pipeline problem is real and I agree that we need to do everything we can to even out the playing field so everyone has a fair chance to make their mark in the legal profession. But in the meantime, while we solve the big picture issues, we can encourage firms to tackle the pipeline problem by diversifying their thinking about what makes an affective attorney or leader, and making more of an effort to include in that calculus attributes that are often undervalued. This means in some cases looking beyond traditional criteria like grades, law school, and/or billable hours and focusing on other factors that lead to successful lawyering.

Many diverse attorneys, of course, have all the requisite “paper” credentials. But many also have other seemingly undervalued attributes. Here are just a few of the overlooked talents I see in the diverse attorney candidates I work with each day, and which in my view make them tremendous assets for any law firm:

  • Entrepreneurial Zeal – Many diverse attorneys are gifted in the area of networking and business development. Even at the junior level, diverse attorneys are getting out there in the community and bringing in new clients to their firms. Given that rainmaking is so essential to law firm profitability, and that business development is a skill few attorneys seem to enjoy or excel at, it is surprising that firms do not assign more credit for this attribute in their hiring and promotion decisions.
  • Interpersonal Skills – Just as many diverse attorneys have an entrepreneurial spirit, many also have highly-developed interpersonal skills. Whether this is because diverse attorneys have had to learn to successfully negotiate divergent worlds and get along with many different kinds of people, or for other reasons, people-skills add tremendous value to law firms and are a component of effective lawyering. Attorneys who are good with people get deals done more efficiently; communicate well with opposing counsel, judges, and juries; bring new clients in the door; and keep existing ones satisfied.
  • Tenacity, Perseverance and Character – Not every diverse attorney has had to overcome a disproportionate level of adversity, but many have. Successful lawyers work hard and sometimes need to fight battles. What client or practice group chair would not want someone in his or her corner who has shown the fortitude it takes to, say, be the first person in his or her family to graduate from college let alone law school? Or to have been the only person of a particular orientation or affiliation, or with a disability, in the room time after time and emerged from the experience with integrity, dignity and grace? Life experience—and the character it shapes—can make the difference between a mediocre attorney and an exceptional one.
  • Creativity and Problem-Solving Ability – Sometimes lawyers need to be adversaries, but most times they simply need to be problem-solvers. The broader someone’s life experience has been, the more out-of-the-box thinking that person is going to be able to bring to the table, especially when we remember we are living in a global world with a myriad of customs, norms and archetypes. Many diverse attorneys have not only deeply textured life experiences, including coming from and moving through vastly different cultural landscapes with success, but also have the enthusiasm and courage to try approaches.

If we really want diversity in the legal profession, we should start taking advantage of diverse talent that exists right now. Sometimes that talent comes with all the bells and whistles that law firms have traditionally looked for. But sometimes it comes with a different set of attributes, like the ones discussed above, which should factor into hiring and promotion decisions.

Whether we are discussing the “pipeline problem” or another aspect of the legal profession’s diversity gap, I propose we take a step back, rethink the issue and reassess whether solutions are closer than they seem. Diversifying our thinking can lead to a better and more inclusive outcome.

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Sarah Garvey .

BCG Attorney

Search Diversity Director