Tag Archives: Christina Ahn

Promoting Diversity in Law: A Strategic Guide for Navigating the Post-Affirmative Action Legal Landscape

Impact of the Supreme Court’s Decision on Diversity in the Legal Profession

The Supreme Court’s decision ending race-conscious affirmative action in college and law school admissions has sparked a reevaluation of efforts to promote racial diversity, not just on campuses but also in the workplace more broadly. In the legal profession, as in many industries, the Court’s stand puts in jeopardy the progress that has been made over the last several years. This moment challenges those of us who believe in the value of a diverse profession to think creatively about opportunities to redouble our efforts.

The Role of Legal Recruiters in Upholding Diversity in Law Firms

Legal recruiters have a role to play—consistent with the law—in mitigating the impact of what we expect will be a reduced number of diverse graduates from the nation’s most prestigious law schools. We have an obligation to press ahead on our long-held vision of a profession that better reflects the diversity of our country.

Recent Progress in Racial Diversity Within U.S. Law Firms

In recent years, law firms have made undeniable progress on racial diversity, even if the pace of change has been slower than we would wish.  NALP’s Report on Diversity in U.S. Law Firms found that in 2022, the representation of Black associates at major U.S. law firms grew by half a percentage point, to 5.8%, and the proportion of Black summer associates rose by 0.7 percentage point, to 11.9%. Moreover, for the first time, women of color achieved representation of greater than 10% among lawyers overall.

The Influence of the Mansfield Rule on Law Firm Diversity

This progress is partly attributable to active efforts like the Mansfield Rule. Modeled after the National Football League’s Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview diverse candidates as part of the head coach hiring process, the Mansfield Rule presses law firms to consider “a broad slate of talent – including at least 30% underrepresented lawyers – for leadership positions.” Firms committed to that standard can become Mansfield Certified. Of course, it remains to be seen whether Mansfield and similar efforts will persist in their current form following the Supreme Court’s decision.

Challenges to Racial Diversification in Law Firm Partnership Ranks

Disappointingly, among the law firm partnership ranks, racial diversification has appeared to be stagnating even without the added burden of the Supreme Court’s new holding. NALP found no statistically significant growth in equity partners of color in 2022. The top echelon of the profession remains its least diverse segment.

Strategic Steps Legal Recruiters Can Take Amid Reduced Law School Diversity

So how can search firms like Lateral Link continue to drive progress, even if law school classes become less racially diverse in the immediate future?

Deepening Partnerships with Law Schools and Alumni Associations

First, we can deepen our partnership with law schools and their alumni associations, curating creative ways to support diverse students in their efforts to navigate the legal recruiting landscape successfully. Our goal should be to equip the diverse students who are admitted—even if the numbers are smaller—with sufficient knowledge and inspiration to make it to elite law firms.

The Power of Personal Interaction and Mentorship Programs

There are countless opportunities to connect with and educate students, according to Amy Langan, Lateral Link Professional Development and Law School Relations Manager. “In our experience, student affinity groups are highly receptive to hosting speakers from the recruiting sector.” Examples of potential presentation topics include interviewing tips, how to choose a practice area, market-specific updates, and how to pursue a non-traditional legal career. As legal recruiters, we have a birds-eye view of the legal industry nationwide, and we can share with law students our insights about job opportunities in the cities that they are targeting for summer and permanent associate positions. Amy notes that “we can visit HBCU law schools, and we can sponsor or attend job fairs known to attract diverse students. Showing up and being visibly supportive makes a real difference.”

Tailored Mentorship: Fostering Success for Diverse Students

In addition to giving presentations in larger settings, recruiters can help facilitate more tailored one-on-one mentorship, for example by helping to pair lawyers and legal recruiters with students who are members of diverse affinity groups. The Orange County Korean American Bar Association (OCKABA) offers an example. Lateral Link Senior Director Christina Ahn co-chairs the OCKABA Mentorship & Outreach Committee, which pairs law student mentees with attorney mentors based on the student’s interest and the attorney’s practice area. Attorney mentors regularly offer personalized insight into how to advance successfully in a law firm setting.

Collaborative Partnerships: Supporting Racially Diverse Attorneys

Second, legal recruiters can partner with law firms and State Bar Associations to jointly assist racially diverse attorneys to thrive at all levels of seniority, in a manner that remains compliant with the Court’s ruling. Recruiters bring substantial intelligence to the table, with knowledge both of what law firms are looking for in potential lateral hires and of the individual needs of diverse candidates. An example of a forum where this knowledge can make a major contribution is the Texas Minority Counsel Program—the premier client development, networking, and CLE event for Texas attorneys. Open to everyone, the program’s mission is to increase opportunities for diverse attorneys, and to expose organizations to the legal talent of diverse attorneys in Texas.

Curating Initiatives for Diversity in Law Firm Partnerships

In the particular context of law firm partner opportunities, legal recruiters can work with firms to curate new initiatives that comply with the Supreme Court decision and, at the same time, ensure that partners of color can thrive in the law firm platform. Specifically, legal recruiters can work closely with law firms to help them prioritize diversity in partner recruiting and retention.

The Importance of Intentionality in Diversity Efforts

Now more than ever, legal recruiters have to be intentional about being part of the solution. Just hoping for the best will not create diverse and inclusive legal communities. Being intentional may at times entail discussing sensitive issues that impact diverse partners disproportionately, such as origination credit formulas, lateral partner integration, and diversity, equality, and inclusive initiatives at each of the firms we work with. Sometimes these conversations may generate a measure of discomfort or resistance, but recruiters need to use our access to advance the discussion of these essential matters.

Hybrid Work and Generational Divide: Navigating Differences in Modern Law Firm Practices

More than three years after COVID-19 upended where and how we work, law firm offices in some ways resemble the pre-pandemic normal. Attorneys mingle freely at in-person gatherings. Face masks and hand sanitizer have receded. But one thing is still starkly different: just how many desks are unoccupied on any given day.

Return-to-office policies are not uniform

One might have predicted that Biglaw firms would potentially use their return-to-office policies as a recruiting tactic that resulted in uniform policies given the fierce competition for talent and the ensuing (and somewhat uniform) salary increases over the past few years. The competition for talent has cooled as firms have learned to deal with COVID-19, however, and firms are moving towards bringing their attorneys back into the office on at least a hybrid basis. Superficially, it may seem that Biglaw has arrived at something approaching consensus: a survey released in January found that a third of Am Law 100 firms mandate three days per week of in-office presence, with another third encouraging three days in office. But dig a little deeper, and you find a surprising lack of convergence as firms determine what works best for their needs.

For instance, O’Melveny and Myers, like its peer firms, wants attorneys to spend more time in the office. But instead of specifying a set number of days per week, O’Melveny has announced an expectation that lawyers be present in the office for more than half the time over the course of the year. This policy emerged from a series of town halls and surveys, which delivered the clear message that flexibility was important to O’Melveny attorneys.

Even among the firms with a three-day mandate or expectation, there is no consensus on who chooses the days. Some firms have designated “anchor days,” either at an office or practice group level, where the whole team is expected to go in together. Several Morgan Lewis practice groups have recently mandated attendance on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, justifying the decision in part by noting that summer associates will be in the office on those days. Meanwhile, other firms allow lawyers to choose any three days.

And then there is the matter of compliance. Despite supposed “mandates,” noncompliance has been widespread at many firms, with limited attempts at enforcement. Many firms have preferred carrots to sticks, offering incentives such as free lunch to entice lawyers to come in. But some have been more pointed, making payout of annual bonuses contingent upon in-office attendance. Firms taking that stand include: Simpson Thacher, Sidley Austin, Davis Polk, Cahill, and Ropes & Gray.

The generational divide

So why are we seeing a lack of convergence regarding a model for the future of work at law firms? A key factor is generational differences, particularly among seasoned attorneys and junior attorneys.

Firm and practice group leaders entered the profession under very different circumstances from those of today’s junior associates. Two or three decades ago, the notion of a lawyer routinely working from home would have sounded strange. The early-career experiences of today’s senior partners were defined by long hours in the office, yes, but also by substantial in-person mentorship and training.

Given that background, it’s unsurprising that firm leadership is eager for associates to return, both for cultural and developmental reasons. It’s difficult to build culture when attorneys are remote, and effective training in a remote setting is challenging. When law firm leaders consider how they became partners—by creating strong ties with the partnership while they were associates—they struggle to conceive of how a fully remote associate could build comparable relationships and successfully navigate the path to partnership. 

Meanwhile, at the base of the pyramid are Gen Z associates who graduated from law school during the pandemic and began their law firm careers in a fully remote setting. Now that these junior lawyers are (largely) expected to be back in the office, they miss the flexibility. I sometimes receive questions about whether it’s possible to find a fully remote job at a firm. One current Biglaw junior associate recently asked me if he could go to a smaller firm with a lower hours expectation and work remotely. When I brought up the professional development benefits of in-person work for early-career attorneys, he responded that he was not sure if he wanted to practice law long-term, let alone become a law firm partner. He also mentioned that he put a premium on work-life balance and flexibility, which he thought remote work could help him achieve.

This candidate is hardly alone. A recent survey of Gen Z attorneys found that 60% would sacrifice compensation for a flexible work schedule and just 23% aspire to be a law firm partner. Gen Z also prioritizes work-life balance and flexibility.

Having been a judicial law clerk for over a year and a law firm associate for almost five years, I also know that the first five years of practice are critical for skills development, even if partnership is not necessarily in your future. I benefited tremendously from in-person mentorship and training, and I still value my mentorship and training even though I no longer practice law. When candidates ask about fully remote positions, I tell them that some midsize and boutique firms do not have a formal policy for days in the office. But I advise them to consider various types of firms with hybrid schedules, both to keep all their options open and to accelerate their development of transferable skills, for if and when they do leave the law firm track.

Ultimately, the generations are each going to have to give some ground in acknowledgment of the other’s reasonable perspectives. It remains to be seen how firms will treat hybrid or remote work to promote work-life balance and attract (and retain) talent. Whatever the equilibrium is, we haven’t reached it yet.