For all its silly jokes and attention to pink fashion accessories, 2001’s hit movie Legally Blonde highlighted issues in the legal world that are still relevant 18 years later. The path to law firm leadership positions has always favored young attorneys who look and act like Elle Woods’ pretentious boyfriend, Warner Huntington III. While women and minority enrollment in law programs across the country has surged, these groups remain under-represented in top-ranking positions at top law firms and we all need to work together to improve these inequities.

The legal community is trying a new approach to improve opportunities for diverse attorneys with the Mansfield Rule. Named after Arabella Mansfield, the first woman lawyer in the United States, the Mansfield Rule was one of the winning ideas at the 2016 Women in Law Hackathon – a thought leadership competition geared toward advancing women in the legal profession — hosted by Diversity Lab with Bloomberg Law and Stanford Law School. Firms that commit to implementing the Mansfield Rule pledge that at least 30 percent of candidates considered for governance roles, lateral hiring openings and equity partner promotions are women or attorneys of color. In July 2018, Mansfield implemented the 2.0 version of the Rule, which includes LGBTQ+ lawyers, and over 65 law firms, the majority of which are in the AM Law 200, have adopted this new iteration.

The Mansfield Rule draws inspiration from the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which mandates that league teams interview at least one ethnic-minority candidate for each head coach and senior football operations vacancy they are looking to fill. Although the Rooney Rule has recently come under fire, and the number of minority coaches has actually dipped over the past year, the policy has increased the chances of minority coaches landing jobs. While the NFL’s policy only addresses structural difficulties facing minority coaches, law firms looking to implement the Mansfield Rule are working with Diversity Lab to address some of the organizational challenges minority candidates face.

Looking at law school enrollment, it is becoming increasingly difficult for law firms to justify their abysmal diversity record at the top. Over the past several years, law school classrooms have become more and more diverse. According to the American Bar Association, women made up 53 percent and minorities made up 31 percent of all first year law students across the country in the fall of 2018. The challenge facing the legal community is making sure the nation’s top law firms mirror the increased diversity at law schools and the population at large.

Statistics provided by the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) shed light on the demographic disparities between law school and law firms. For the past 12 years, NAWL has compiled data on the career progression of women among the top 200 law firms across the country. As it stands, women only represent 30 percent of non-equity partners and 20 percent of equity partners. Minorities make up just 8 percent of equity partners and only 2 percent when only counting women of color.

Diversity is a topic that gets thrown around a lot, but there seems to be a disconnect between the discussions that frequently occur and any real understanding of why it’s important. And there is a surprising dearth of material on the subject. There are a plethora of reasons that diversifying your talent at all levels is beneficial and can help your law firm thrive. At its most simple level, employing a staff composed of different life experiences, ethnicities, backgrounds and personalities can inspire original thought and innovation, which can in turn lead to potentially new sources of revenue. In addition, having a diverse roster of senior attorneys in multiple practice areas can lead to immediate gains in business with companies and government clients that have policies in place that mandate hiring firms or teams that include diverse attorneys.

While for many firms the path to increasing diversity numbers starts at the bottom, with junior associates or even first-year law student interns, infusing diversity into partner and governance roles can help firms struggling with retention issues. Hiring minority candidates for leadership roles may be the key to improving retention of associates from non-traditional backgrounds. Far too many young diverse attorneys abandon their firms or firm life generally because they don’t see people who look like them at the top, and therefore don’t see a path to Partnership or beyond.

Given the reality that law firms haven’t had much success to date in making major improvements to their diversity numbers, they will need to rely on trusted advisors to find diverse candidates for their firms. Many firms now have diversity professionals working internally on hiring and retention but they are often overwhelmed and unable to meet the increased demands of their positions. Recruiting firms can be particularly helpful to law firms in successfully implementing their Mansfield Rule commitments. A skilled recruiter understands the market, and combined with knowledge of your firm, can help law firms match with candidates with unique backgrounds that will be poised for success.

A limited number of recruiters understand the unique challenges that diverse attorneys face, which may include lack of direction in applying to law schools and/or lack of support to succeed in the critical 1L year.

At Lucas Group, we get to know our candidates and work closely with them to learn their stories and articulate their strengths. Partnering with the right recruiting firm is one way to ensure  compliance with Mansfield and ultimately will inch law firms towards the ultimate goal of looking at all levels like the populations they serve.