During the course of my career, I’ve had the pleasure of mentoring a good number of minority law students and law firm associates. In speaking with scores of mentees over the years, patterns have begun to emerge with respect to their experiences in large law firms. To be sure, navigating the rigors of large law firm life is challenging for all associates. It’s particularly challenging, however, when you’re a minority associate.
The Challenge for Minority Biglaw Associates
According to the American Bar Associate (“ABA”), black lawyers make up just 3 percent of all attorneys in “Biglaw” (read: the nation’s top 250 law firms) and only 1.9% of its partners. In fact, according to ABA statistics, black, Asian and Hispanic attorneys collectively account for a mere 12.5% of all Biglaw lawyers. A recent article at Law360 reported that approximately 15% of the lawyers surveyed at over 300 law firms identified as a “minority” (broadly defined), despite the fact that minorities make up over 30% of all law students—numbers that have remained effectively unchanged for nearly 20 years.
These figures alone are concerning in and of themselves, but they only partially explain the difficulties that minority attorneys face in Biglaw on a daily basis. Implicit bias research conducted in 2014 by Dr. Arin N. Reeves and her team at Nextions produced empirical data showing that Biglaw partners are more likely to look for, and find, mistakes in associate work product if the partners are told that the associate is black. Conversely, the study also found that Biglaw partners are less likely to look for, or find, any errors in associate work product if the partners are told that the associate is white.
For minority associates, the above-referenced implicit bias (sometimes referred to as “confirmation bias”) can be a major impediment to all of the core aspects of the Biglaw experience, whether that’s receiving a fair evaluation, being chosen for a secondment with a major client, or being consistently assigned to noteworthy litigation cases or corporate deals.
[B]lack lawyers make up just 3 percent of all attorneys in “Biglaw” . . . and only 1.9% of its partners. [B]lack, Asian and Hispanic attorneys collectively account for a mere 12.5% of all Biglaw lawyers.
But don’t despair.
The fact is that many attorneys of color have faced these kinds of challenges for decades and have achieved successful careers in Biglaw and beyond despite these obstacles. There are certain best practices that are common among successful minority attorneys that we will explore in this and other future posts. For the sake of brevity, I will highlight just a few here.
Best Practices for Minority Biglaw Associates
Best Practice #1: Build meaningful relationships.
As a threshold matter, most of the best practices that we will discuss will require assistance from mentors and sponsors (there is a difference between the two, but we’ll touch on that in a later post). So invest the time now as an associate to develop good relationships with the lawyers around you, both inside and outside of your firm, with a particular eye towards those who are doing well in practice areas that are of interest to you. Far too often, junior associates in Biglaw make the mistake of equating success with keeping their heads down and their billable hours up. To be sure, billable hours are important, but they alone will not advance your legal career. In order to be successful, you’ll need to get up out of your chair, walk down the hall, and actually talk to other human beings. Schedule lunches, coffees, drinks, etc. with the senior partners in your office and in other offices within your firm, as well as with associates and partners at other firms.
Far too often, junior associates in Biglaw make the mistake of equating success with keeping their heads down and their billable hours up.
Don’t forget to also include lawyers who work for regulators, such as the SEC, or lawyers who are in-house counsel in corporate legal departments. Mentors and sponsors can be found everywhere, so leave no stone unturned. Find common points of interest with them (family, sports, etc.). With regard to the partners in your firm, ask them what they’re working on and offer to help in any way you can. Offer to research and write a law journal article for them in their practice area. With regard to all of the attorneys you meet, let them know what your career ambitions are. Most importantly, share your victories with them. Whenever you receive a favorable result on a litigation matter or praise from the client on a corporate deal, take a second to mention those achievements to them. This will not only help to develop your relationships, but it will also build your brand as a “go-to” attorney.
(This is usually where associates will tell me that they don’t have time for any of these things. Keep in mind, however, that we’re not talking about major time investments here. A successful sit down for coffee can take place in 15 minutes or less (that’s a 0.3 in Biglaw speak). You probably spend longer than that checking your Instagram page, so why not invest that time in developing a relationship with a mentor or sponsor who can elevate your career?)
Best Practice #2: Proactively seek assignments.
One of the most common complaints I hear from minority Biglaw associates is that they do not receive work assignments on a consistent basis (and, when they do, they’re not receiving the most attractive assignments). If your firm is like most, there is typically some kind of default assignment system to distribute work among the associates. Do not rely on this system. If you want to work on that new bet-the-company litigation matter or that massive M&A deal that just came into the firm, go ask for it. Of course, this can be intimidating (and may ultimately prove futile) if the partner who is handling the matter is someone you’ve never met. This goes back to why Best Practice #1 is so important; if a partner doesn’t know you from Adam, then they’re not going to risk their reputation with the client by assigning you to handle their matters. But if you’ve been planting the seeds we’ve outlined above, chances are they’ve already developed a working relationship with you on other matters, which has allowed you to showcase your ability to produce good work product. (Your ability to produce good work product is, of course, a given.) Even if they haven’t given you an assignment yet, if you’ve been developing a meaningful relationship with them then it’s only a matter of time. Leverage that good will to seek the big assignments when the time comes.
Best Practice #3: Own mistakes.
Everybody who practices law makes mistakes. It is an absolute certainty. Unfortunately, empirical data shows that when you’re a minority associate practicing in Biglaw, both white partners and minority partners are more likely to find your mistakes than they would if you were a white associate. The key is to anticipate this unfortunate reality and be proactive when mistakes inevitably do happen. Get out in front of your mistakes quickly, swiftly resolve them, and then move on. The goal is to have the mistake seen for what it is—an honest mistake—and not as an indication that you are careless, lazy, or do not belong in Biglaw.
If you want to work on that new bet-the-company litigation matter or that massive M&A deal that just came into the firm, go ask for it.
To that end, and provided time permits, use your peers, mentors and sponsors (see Best Practice #1) to help you come up with a solution to the mistake before you present it to the partner. That way, you’re not only giving the partner the bad news that an error has occurred, but you’re also providing them with the good news that you’ve already figured out how to fix it.
These are but a few of the habits exhibited by successful minority Biglaw attorneys. While there is no magic formula that can guarantee success, following these and other best practices, which we will discuss in future posts, will significantly increase the likelihood that you realize that goal.