How Law Schools Could Improve Law Firm Diversity

law scales

Last Friday I opened an invitation to my law school reunion and I realised how far I have come since my days as a 1L. I can hold my own with Westlaw and if my life depended on it I could still write a brief. I even remember a few of those zany Civil Procedure cases. Most important, though, I learned that none of these skills, alone, will make a law student into a firm partner.

My alma mater, like most of other law schools in America, did not prepare its students, particularly those from historically underrepresented backgrounds, for navigating their careers in law firms. For today’s law schools to continue stressing the importance of Pennoyer v. Neff, rather than teaching its students about the business of law firms is absolutely criminal.

As law firms claim to look for new and innovative ways to increase racial and cultural diversity, it seems obvious to me where the disconnect in skills and knowledge occurs: law schools. Studies reveal that law firm culture training might be the missing link to retaining more attorneys of colour and bolstering the partnership pipeline. The National Association of Law Placement (NALP), revealed that over 75% of associates of colour leave their law firms within 5 years of being hired. Most of the mid-level attorneys of colour who were interviewed for the book, Recruiting and Retaining a Diverse Workforce: New Rules for a New Generation, spoke about the common barriers to inclusion–e.g. lack of informal mentoring, inability to receive quality work assignments, and isolation–associates of colour encountered in law firms and how their experiences led them to leave their firms, voluntarily and involuntarily.

Sharon Jones* , a black woman associate who is working for her third Am Law 200 firm since graduating from Columbia Law School in 2000, is a prime example of the abysmal retention statistics for women of colour. “I think the number one reason why women of colour leave firms in such overwhelmingly large numbers is that law firms are not meritocracies; the playing field is far from level. If the standard used to evaluate partnership and advancement potential is purely a subjective one then women of colour stand little chance.” While expressing some doubt about the impact of law firm culture training, she thinks “students will understand how to ‘play the game’ a bit better (and even know a game is being played!)”

In reality, the partnership pipeline will continue to suffer until more associates of colour stay at firms the requisite 8 to 10 years that it usually takes to become a partner. Law schools have a role to play by providing classes, workshops, or even a curriculum that educates students about the unique experiences associates of colour have in law firms. Law firm culture training offers strategic education for the next generation that could make law firms less of a revolving door for associates of colour and instead put them on the path to partnership earlier in their careers.

*Denotes that the name has been changed to protect the individual’s identity.

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