Sunday, March 13, 2016
Below is an excerpt from an article I just published in the PD Quarterly. The topic is diversity, one of the hardest and most intractable problems affecting the legal profession. What makes this article different is that it is draws heavily upon my applied research with law firms.
In the coming months, I will be writing more about applied research within the legal field -- in particular, the challenges of this work and why, notwithstanding the challenges, applied research is destined to grow in importance and influence.
Here is a familiar fact pattern in large U.S. law firms.
Time 1. Partners come together and agree that diversity is part of their firm’s core values; they review the firm’s bleak statistics, particularly at the partnership level, and agree they can and will do better.
Time 2. Through significant time and expense, they successfully recruit a diverse class of incoming associates.
Time 3. A disproportionately large number of female and diverse associates leave the firm.
Time 4. The remaining associates eligible for partner are primarily white men.
Time 5. Partners come together and agree that diversity is part of their firm’s core values; they review the firm’s bleak statistics, particularly at the partnership level, and agree they can and will do better.
Why does this cycle repeat itself? As a long-time law firm researcher who has seen this cycle play out over several iterations, I can tell you that it is easy for a group of lawyers, especially those new to leadership, to convince themselves that they can solve the profession’s diversity problem through greater moral resolve. Yet, if the root causes are not moral in nature, we won’t make much progress.
In this article, I ask readers to consider the possibility that the profession’s lack of progress on diversity is a systems problem rather than a failure of moral resolve.
What does it mean to have a systems problem? Every firm has a system of recruitment, selection, development, feedback, evaluation, and promotion that enables law graduates to enter as legal novices and, through years of effort, acquire the skills, knowledge, and experience necessary to become partners. At most law firms, however, this system is driven more by tradition and past practice than science. Further, the system seldom places explicit or rigid demands on partner-owners because partner-owners prize their autonomy and are given the greatest rewards for bringing in business. To the extent the system relies on measurement, the quality of the data is uneven and under-analyzed. Stated another way, the “system” for creating successful lawyers and partners is not much of a system at all. And in this ignorance lies the cause of our diversity problem.
For the last several years, I have shifted my focus from academic to applied research. Although academic ideas can be elegant, compelling, and important, their major limitation is that we don’t really know if they will work in actual practice. Applied research attempts to sort this out, usually through social scientists hired by organizations that are hungry for a competitive advantage. The goal of applied research is to find solutions to important problems and then make them cheap and simple to implement. Law has a shortage of applied researchers, partially because the profession has been so prosperous for so long (what’s there to fix?) and partially because lawyers tend to be uncomfortable with data and statistics. Yet, these background factors are starting to change.
In this article, I am going to share what I have learned through my applied research as it bears on the problem of law firm diversity. The bottom line is that the problem is fixable. If we design and implement a better system, out the other side will flow successful diverse attorneys in roughly the same proportion as the number we managed to hire several years earlier. Further, the stakes are hardly academic. Organizations with a reliable system for creating diverse lawyers will have a competitive advantage for attracting clients and the best entry-level talent. Likewise, esteem and accolades await the leaders who finally make a breakthrough on law firm diversity.
You Have to Start with a Theory
An intelligent system is invariably built upon a theory drawn from multiple sources. One high quality source is published empirical research. A second is one’s own professional work experience: “When I have tried X, Y usually happens” — so we rely on X. Finally, a subset of our theories will be based on pure reason: “Based on our collective knowledge and experience, this is the best approach for this problem.” Figure 1 is a summary of my own theory for creating high performing partners.
Figure 1. Elements Need to Create a High Performing Partner
In narrative form, I am saying that the creation of high-performing partners is influenced by five factors: (1) aptitude, also known as cognitive ability; (2) motivation, which is primarily a function of values alignment between the lawyer and the substance of his or her work; (3) the type and quality of work experience that a lawyer receives during his or her early career; (4) the quality, quantity, and timeliness of training and feedback; and (5) the presence and quality of a mentoring or coaching relationship.
The model can also be broken down into selection and development components. A law firm optimizes elements (1) and (2) through a process of accurate selection at the point of hiring. The less accurate the selection, the higher the lawyer attrition due to poor fit for aptitude and motivation. A firm can optimize (3), (4), and (5) by designing and implementing systems for professional development. The better the design and execution of the interconnected systems, the faster and higher the lawyer’s growth trajectory.
What is the relative importance of these factors? This is a good question that no one can answer with any degree of precision, primarily because we are in the early days of applied research within the legal profession and the required data has not yet been collected and analyzed. The best we can do is to start with a theory that is consistent with the data we do have and continuously improve our knowledge through measurement.
It has been my experience, however, that lawyers often have strong opinions on what does and doesn’t matter. These views on lawyer selection and development essentially create a series of default settings based on conventional wisdom and past practice. I have enough knowledge of the social science literature and enough experience doing sophisticated applied research in law firms to conclude that many of these default settings are wrong.
Below is a summary of what I know about each of the five components in my five-factor model. One by one, and cumulatively, these model components provide me with optimism that law firm diversity can be dramatically improved, particularly at the partnership level.
Interested readers can download the full article from SSRN.