Blog/Podcast: Why Business Development Is Especially Important for Underrepresented Lawyers

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With women holding less than five percent of all managing partner roles, the legal industry is the least diverse of all comparable professions, according to a survey by the American Bar Association. This has to change ASAP if firms want to innovate and retain top talent.

That’s the goal of Kim Stuart, founder and president of strategic advisory firm Key Group. Through her annual Diversity in Leadership Forum, she hopes to teach women and underrepresented lawyers how they can climb the ranks and become leaders in their firms. She joined the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst podcast to talk about the Forum and the important role that business development plays in leadership.

Minority lawyers face more challenges in the legal industry

Studies have shown that people tend to hire and work with people who look like them. We don’t always do this intentionally, but everyone has implicit biases that affect who we associate with (and how we associate with them). If it’s not addressed, this bias can prevent companies from creating diverse, effective teams.

Like all industries, law firms aren’t immune to this problem. Firms have historically been run by the “good old boys network,” making it difficult for women to advance. Female lawyers, particularly women of color, are not only paid less but are also given less trust and respect. The good news is that law firms don’t have to be this way. There are steps management can take to make firms better places for women to work.

Business development can help level the playing field

Today, law firms are more aware of the importance of diversity and inclusion, but until every single person recognizes and reconciles their biases, the legal industry will still be a challenging place for women and people of color. Underrepresented lawyers need every tool at their disposal to prove themselves and succeed.

At a law firm, having a book of business is power. But how do you build that book? Through business development. It’s especially important that underrepresented attorneys know how to network, negotiate and advocate for themselves. They also need sponsors and mentors who are willing to support and vouch for them.

Law firms need to provide opportunities for all attorneys to hone these skills and make sure these resources are accessible to women and attorneys of color. Inclusive business development training and mentorship programs are two great places to start, if your firm doesn’t already offer them.

What the Diversity in Leadership Forum does

Kim alongside The Ackert Advisory and KPMG LLP founded the Women Leaders Forum, now called the Diversity in Leadership Forum (DLF), in 2016. The year-long program helps participants learn the soft and hard skills necessary to become effective leaders. DLF brings in a wide variety of speakers to talk about challenges in leadership, including compensation models, negotiation strategies and practice group planning. These topics are relevant to all attorneys, but the DLF looks at them through the lens of female and underrepresented lawyers, and speakers talk specifically about the issues that participants are facing.

This year, the program name changed to the Diversity in Leadership Forum to reflect that it’s not just women who face challenges in law firms. Kim decided she needed to make a change when she tried to explain the Forum to her child, who is gender fluid. It made her realize that she needs to fight for everyone who is underrepresented, and she started by making the switch to a more inclusive name.

How #MeToo has changed the environment

There’s no doubt that we’re in the midst of a cultural shift. We’re having impactful conversations that wouldn’t have been possible just a few years ago, and more people are speaking up and sharing their experiences. #MeToo has given a voice to people who may not have thought they had one.

In terms of legal leadership, this has massive implications. When you have a truly independent voice, you can lead more effectively. Many women and people of color who have felt silenced in the legal industry have a newfound sense of power, and that power is driving them into leadership positions.

This is also the perfect moment for longtime leaders to step up, take stock of their careers and, if necessary, take accountability for their actions. A true leader isn’t someone who never makes a misstep; it’s someone who does their best and takes ownership.

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