For Legal Employers: How to Adapt to the Evolving Needs of Legal Talent

Topics: Corporate Legal, Diversity, Law Firms, Midsize Law Firms Blog Posts, Q&A Interviews, Talent Development, Women’s Leadership Blog Posts

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As part of the Legal Executive Institute’s new Talent platform, Demetria Johnson, a new contributor, sat down with Debbie Epstein Henry, an internationally recognized expert, consultant, best-selling author and public speaker on careers, workplaces, women and law. We wanted to get her perspective on how the landscape of talent strategy, especially for diverse lawyers and women within law firms, has changed since she co-authored the book Finding Bliss: Innovative Legal Models for Happy Clients & Happy Lawyers in 2015.

Legal Executive Institute: What does a successful talent strategy look like today compared to when you first wrote about it in Finding Bliss?

Debbie Epstein Henry:The biggest talent shift I’ve observed is the erosion of the linear career path for lawyers.  This is something that I’ve been tracking since the 1990s but it has expedited since Finding Bliss came out in 2015. When I graduated law school in the mid-1990s, lawyers’ career paths were very linear and unforgiving. When some women lawyers opted for a less traditional path, they were stigmatized for it. Over the past 20 years there has been a change in that linear path.  It’s no longer just the women lawyers who were the canaries in the coal mine who want change.

The demographic of lawyers seeking flexibility (agile work styles and non-partnership track) has changed drastically. Baby boomers are looking to work differently as they phase into retirement while many millennials are willing to trade money and title for flexibility and meaning in their work. The millennials are less in pursuit of longevity in their careers and they’re more focused on experience and opportunity. According to the Brookings Institute, millennials are also the most diverse adult generation, with 44% minority representation. These diverse lawyers are seeking ways to be more engaged with work given law firms’ historic lack of success in retaining and promoting them.

Lawyers today yearn for a new type of knowledge to build a successful career. Given the change in what lawyers want, employers, in turn, need to build career paths for lawyers that develop them as people and not just as lawyers. This means training lawyers in executive presence, leadership, sponsorship, networking, and self-promotion. By supporting lawyers’ development of these skills, employers help develop the success of women and diverse lawyers and enable them to thrive in the workplace and beyond.

Legal Executive Institute: In Chapter 6 of Finding Bliss there was a section on the new legal models in D&I — has the role of increasing D&I changed? (Secondment, collaboration over competition)

Debbie Epstein Henry: In Finding Bliss, we unveil the concept of “On-Deck Diversity” which is an opportunity to increase the success rate of recruiting and retaining diverse lawyers. The way this works is that at Bliss Lawyers, where possible, we hire diverse talent to work at our clients’ offices on temporary engagements (called secondments). Diverse lawyers then have the opportunity to impress our clients through what we call an “extended interview” that ideally results in our clients hiring our lawyers.

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Debbie Epstein Henry

Given the trial period when both the lawyer and client get to know each other and ensure it’s a mutual fit, when a hiring ensues, the likelihood of success is that much greater. And, even when the secondment does not result in a hiring, the lawyer still is able to gain top notch experience from a distinguished client that will help with other job opportunities.

Legal Executive Institute: What has the current talent strategy within law firms done to impact the success of women and diverse lawyers? 

Debbie Epstein Henry: In 2007, I conceived of the Best Law Firms for Women initiative which I ran for a decade in a partnership with Working Mother. At the time, there was very little data or benchmarks on the status of women and diverse lawyers in law firms. The logic behind the initiative was that by annually evaluating and naming 50 best law firms for women and reporting annually on benchmarking data, we could create a competition on diversity issues as historically had been the case for salary. Additionally, by providing feedback to participating firms on their strengths and weaknesses, the firms were then able to more effectively focus on developing solutions.

Today, there is more accountability and benchmarks on the status among women and diverse lawyers, e.g., promotion, leadership and equity partnership. The thinking is that “what gets measured gets done.”

Legal Executive Institute: Have clients played an integral role in changing the business model of this strategy? 

Debbie Epstein Henry:Clients are increasingly using diversity as a criteria for selecting outside counsel. However, unless clients are willing to move business due to law firms’ failures to meet diversity demands, the impact of clients’ influence will not be fully realized.

Legal industry initiatives to further these goals are helpful. For example, in the summer of 2016, the American Bar Association formed the General Counsel Initiative to Implement Resolution 113,which urges all providers of legal services, including corporations and law firms, to expand and create opportunities at all levels of responsibility for diverse attorneys. This initiative calls for more transparency from the relationship partners and encourages clients to ensure that their matters are staffed with more women and diverse lawyers.

Legal Executive Institute: Has this impacted the client/firm relationship?

Debbie Epstein Henry:Yes and I think it will have even more impact if clients become more vocal on succession planning.  According to the New Millennium, Same Glass Ceiling? Study back in 2011, only 1% – 3% of clients actually have a say in succession planning. If clients started communicating their desires to have diverse talent inherit their business, it would go a long way in furthering the influence as well as the retention and promotion of diverse talent.

The talent pool today is very different than it was 20 years ago. Just as law firms want to be on the cutting edge of practice area trends  they should be equally focused on being on the cutting edge of inspiring and developing their talent.