How Law Firms Can Fight Racism in Their Hiring

July 9, 2020

How Law Firms Can Fight Racism in Their Hiring

(Excerpts from this article were originally published in Lawdragon)

Every major law firm has some sort of diversity initiative. Too often, they pay lip service to the idea without making the real systemic changes necessary to make a difference.

Behind the glossy marketing touting the importance of a diverse team, some law firm leaders privately express frustration at the “trend.” “We want to hire the best,” they say, “regardless of race or gender.”

One big problem with this mindset, though, is that it denies implicit bias. Implicit bias refers to the traits we unconsciously assign to certain social groups, including different races and genders. The science abounds on how pretty much everyone has some sort of implicit bias, and how the Black community disproportionally suffers from the phenomenon.

Removing implicit bias in law firm hiring can go a long way towards achieving greater diversity in the industry.

One shining example of how to do it right comes from the breakout litigation firm, Selendy & Gay.

Selendy & Gay — which has amassed incredible litigation wins in the two years since it was founded by former Big Law partners — is 50 percent female owned, and has women and people of color at every level of management. Over 30 percent of their associates identity as people of color, and 21 percent of their attorneys as LGBTQ. They insist that this is not exactly on purpose, but more as a result of being very clear about their values as a law firm and setting a high bar for excellence.

They also take active steps to remove implicit bias in their hiring. As founding and managing partner David Elsberg says, “When we’re recruiting for any position, we’re doing it in a way that removes obstacles that shouldn’t be there in the first place.”

One of their stand-out methods is a blindly-graded case study for potential new associates.

“We ask everybody to write a couple of pages where they’re applying a case to a hypothetical fact scenario,” says Elsberg. Identifying details are removed before they are given to the partners for evaluation. “You don’t know the name of the candidate, the gender of the candidate, you don’t know anything about the candidate. It’s just a number.”

Founding and managing partner Jennifer Selendy adds that this blind grading means the partners are focused only on skill sets, such as writing, communication, and “the ability to analyze the law under pressure.”

The blind assessment dovetails the needs of diversity and excellence, because with identifying details removed, the work is the only thing being considered.

An added bonus is this extra step may turn off some candidates — and those are not the candidates Selendy & Gay is looking for.

“It causes favorable self-selection for us, because there is an added hurdle that you have to go through,” says Selendy. “You don’t only have to show for the usual interviews. People who we’ve hired appreciated that they had to do this, because they felt we were interested in learning something about them and how they expressed themselves, how they were able to analyze.”

“It means there’s a bit of a higher barrier to entry,” adds Elsberg. “It also means we get very strong writers, which of course is an important benefit in itself.”

The blind written assessment is just one portion of their hiring process of course; they still have the traditional interviews. But by incorporating this objective factor, they challenge and test their own biases. The result is an effective team from a variety of backgrounds with shared values and a focus on excellence.

“We try to make sure we’re focusing on the values that we think we should be focusing on, and as a result of that, what ends up happening is you have a much more diverse and balanced place that makes the firm a much stronger firm in a lot of ways,” says Elsberg. “Having people from all sorts of different backgrounds ends up giving you strength in different situations because you have different perspectives.”

“It’s not a novel observation, but people aren’t doing it,” says Selendy. “It’s not novel that 50 percent of law school classes are female. It’s been that way since David and I were in law school, and that was a long time ago.”

“Speak for yourself,” says Elsberg.

Read the full article in Lawdragon.