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by Vault Law Editors | March 31, 2010


When it comes to structural change, law firms tend to be followers and observers, rather than leaders and drivers. In an article yesterday about the recent Georgetown symposium on the future of law firms, ABA Journal writer Rachel Zahorsky acknowledges the “murmurs of change” within the industry, but asks, “where’s the proof?” Sure, we’ve heard and read plenty about the various imperatives to cut costs and compete on the global market by, inter alia, doing away with the billable hour and lockstep compensation, and adding more secondment and apprenticeship programs; but how much will really happen among the nation’s top firms, and when? As noted in one comment to Zahorsky’s article, “For all the innovations and amazing inventions the U.S. has contributed to the world, in the arena of the legal profession we are already observers not leaders. ”

It took iTunes less time to revolutionize the music industry than for significant change to touch law practice.”

This institutional immobility is also stalling law firm efforts to diversify their ranks. In an op-ed piece published in The Legal Intelligencer this week, Dechert partner and diversity committee co-chair Vernon Francis takes his profession to task for failing to push “their diversity efforts to another level.” Francis identifies a number of factors that have blocked progress, most of which come down to the traditional law firm structure, with its pyramid model for advancement. This model promotes what he describe as a competitive “tournament” through which a few lucky associates “win” the laurel of partnership.

While “the whole tournament framework is generally accepted as an ‘objective’ process in which ‘merit’ prevails,” he argues, in fact, “the potential for bias in how these systems work is never acknowledged and rarely discussed.” Moreover, “because the natural flow of the ‘up and out’ framework is more concerned with identifying and grooming particular individuals for partnership than it is with distributing professional benefits like training or good assignments equitably among would-be contenders, a rethinking of how assignments are made at firms is probably a prerequisite if diversity efforts are to have any meaningful chance of success.”

“Our most valuable currency is results, not magical thinking or excuses.”

In noting that there have been few “ripple effects from the current change movement,” Zahorsky says that even “Richard Susskind, the British academic and author of The End of Lawyers?, addressed the need for a little less conversation and a little more action.” Similarly, Francis observes that “this disparity between the words law firms use to describe their commitments to diversity and the results we’ve achieved can only breed cynicism in our younger lawyers” and even “put our credibility as lawyers at stake.” Talk is cheap and, if it doesn’t result in anything but more talk, ultimately of little value.

“It is time,” Francis concludes, “for large law firms as a group to take a greater measure of responsibility for their lack of progress on diversity and to take appropriate measures to change things.” If they don’t? “The alternative is to drift into irrelevance, while others who are more receptive to what the future holds forge ahead of us.”

- posted by vera


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