As many of the biggest law firms are concluding, “professional development” has become the preferred vehicle for addressing diversity attrition. Professional development encompasses enhanced orientation, mentoring, assignment and delegation processes, leadership training, career planning, diversity training, management skills, feedback training, business-development training, affinity groups and other tactics aimed at recruiting and keeping a diverse associate group.

The concept of professional development or talent management did not exist in law firms 20 years ago, and the data shows a clear pattern of women and minorities historically reporting less assistance with professional development, as well as lower job satisfaction, compared with white males.

Now most large law firms have some sort of professional development program and recent data from the NALP Foundation shows that this trend toward formalized programs is paying off. In 1998, 20% of associates left their positions at or near the end of their second year of employment. This year, entry-level lawyers are more likely to make their first move at the end of their third year of employment, staying 30% longer. 

The ABA Commission on Women engaged the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago to examine why retention rates for white men are so much higher than those for women of color, and women of color retention rates are higher than those for men of color and white women. Consistent with the NALP’s data, the study found specifically that women of color felt excluded from networking opportunities, felt they were denied desirable assignments, and had limited access to client development opportunities, thereby making their billable hours targets harder to achieve.   

The NALP found that white men are more likely to report a consistent workload, regular feedback and intellectual challenge in their work, and they also report the intention of staying longer at their firms.

A consistent workload, regular feedback and intellectual growth are matters within the control of each firm, and are geometrically enhanced with the involvement of a person charged with professional development.

What specifically can firms incorporate into their processes to improve diversity retention? For starters, here is a short list.

  • Exit interviews
  • Coaching for partners to improve associate management and feedback techniques
  • Formal mentoring program
  • Color-blind assignment program
  • Sophisticated evaluation and feedback forms and procedures

But the best way for firms to systematically enhance diversity retention is to establish a professional development department/person/consultant who can provide benchmarks to identify areas for improvement, formulate goals and then work with the diversity committee, the associate recruitment committee and associate managers to realize those goals.