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What black law students want from IP firms

Black affinity groups and lunch and learn programming make a big difference to law students when deciding where they want to work

Intellectual property firms have steadily come around to the idea that they need to hire more attorneys from diverse backgrounds, including black and African-American attorneys – partly because of ethical considerations and partly because clients are increasingly demanding more diverse legal teams.

A really good way for firms to diversify their talent pools and ultimately hire more black legal professionals, of course, is to focus on recruiting students, including (although not exclusively) those from historically black colleges and universities.

But if firms want to attract the best and brightest of these students to their businesses, they must endeavour to be the kind of places that budding attorneys from unrepresented backgrounds want to join and to stay in.

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Managing IP spoke to five black law students from the American University, the University of Houston, and Howard University who were interested in IP about the kind of diversity polices they wanted to see from firms and how they gauged a firm’s reputation for diversity and inclusion.

These students said they wanted to see black affinity groups and an overall strong culture of diversity and inclusion in the law firms they were considering working for.

Elizabeth Rice, a student at Howard University School of Law in Washington DC, says diversity and inclusion efforts are crucial because they show that firms prioritise people who look like her.

“That’s something that’s really important in a work environment where you might be spending 80 hours a week,” she says.

Tessa Gray, also a student at Howard, agrees, adding that these kinds of policies are her top priority. “If a firm isn’t really attempting diversity and inclusion, then I’m a lot less interested because it shows they’re not interested in something that impacts me,” she says.

‘Struggling together’

Black affinity groups are one example of the diversity and inclusion initiatives law firms can implement to make students feel more comfortable and accepted in their new working environments.

Aden Hizkias, a student at the American University Washington College of Law in Washington DC, says she certainly wants to see firms making the effort to establish affinity groups.

Eryka Jones, also at the American University, says affinity groups are often helpful at IP networking and recruiting events because their representatives are usually very honest about the firm’s culture.

Affinity group members will often let students know if there aren’t any mentors at a firm or if a firm lacks black employees, she says.

She adds that affinity groups can also help new practitioners transition into a new firm. “When you see people who look like you and are struggling together, it makes the work experience a lot more bearable,” she says.

Jones says she likes to see affinity group members go outside the firm and help the community and mentor others. She has also seen firms develop reverse-mentorship programmes, where younger associates (often from diverse backgrounds) mentor more senior lawyers, that appeal to her.

She believes that all law firms should implement these kinds of initiatives because there can be a disconnect between different generations, and these programmes can help junior lawyers show senior attorneys what the younger generation is thinking and how it feels about important issues.

But not all students weigh affinity groups as heavily as others in their recruitment calculations.

Rice at Howard says that while these kinds of groups are a priority, she cares more about a firm’s programming, such as lunch and learn events. “You may have a group you can go to and turn to, but at the end of day, the overall firm culture makes a greater impact,” she says.

She would like to see lunch and learns cover topics such as black history and include programming that is interactive and engages the audience.

Creating culture

Other students agree that it’s important for the firm as a whole to have an inclusive culture.

Gray at Howard says that while she appreciates summer associate programmes that are targeted at diverse populations, firms need to put more focus on how to retain these attorneys.

“Not only is that element essential to recruiting law students like me, but it’s crucial to the end goal of all the initiatives because if they’re not sticking around, there’s no real point,” she says. “Firms should start to understand why despite the pay cheque, attorneys aren’t feeling fulfilled.”

One way that firms can retain diverse attorneys is to ensure that lawyers are comfortable with the people they are working with, she says.

By example, she adds, she used to work at ice-cream chain Dairy Queen and what made her job seamless was the ability to talk to everyone she was working with, including her employees when she was a manager there.

“How you treat people, talk to people and connect with people is going to make them want to work with you,” she says.

Other policies can also help firms foster a culture of inclusion and make a difference to prospective employees. Joshua Hunter, a student at the University of Houston Law Center in Texas, says one issue he looks out for is a firm’s openness to different hairstyles.

And Hizkias at the American University says she also likes to see firms implement anti-bias training.

Watching websites

Students make use of a variety of resources to gauge a firm’s reputation for diversity and inclusion, including its website.

Jones at American says she looks at a firm’s site to get a sense of what kind of diversity initiatives it has, as well as how realistic these goals are considering the law schools it’s willing to hire from.

She notes that some firms have ambitious diversity policies but only hire candidates from top-ranked law schools. She points out that high-quality students may have chosen to go to lower-ranked schools because of scholarship opportunities, and firms are missing out on these candidates by not being more open-minded.

She also looks at the photos of attorneys at a firm. “You don’t know what race someone is just by looking at them, but a visibly black person in a law firm is something that’s really important to me,” she says.

Rice at Howard adds that she also asks firms about diversity when she goes for interviews. She says the interviewer sometimes wants to make the firm look good but other times is honest and gives a sense of what is working and what isn’t.

Students also contact alumni from their universities to understand how diversity and inclusion plays out at firms. Rice, for example, is part of a legal sorority at Howard, which has a network of women at different firms, She says she reaches out to the group to get a better understanding of firms’ efforts.

Other initiatives

As students look at how well firms have cultivated atmospheres of racial diversity and inclusion, they also examine how healthy the overall work environments are.

Hunter at the University of Houston says he considers how much communication junior lawyers have with senior partners.

Rice at Howard says she likes to see team-building activities at firms, noting that some of the best jobs she’s had in the past allowed team members to bounce ideas off each other and rely on one another.

Pro bono work is also important to students. Gray at Howard University says one reason corporate firms don’t see a lot of diversity is because lawyers struggle to figure out how they can help their communities in these environments, especially when some areas of corporate law are hurting those groups.

She adds that it’s helpful when a firm puts its money where its mouth is and shows that it cares about social impact issues.

Jones at American says she also asks firm representatives what their pro bono work is like and if they like the programme. “If the law firm is larger, they have a lot of say in the type of pro bono work they want to do and it’s really nice seeing that people are passionate about talking about pro bono work,” she says.

Firms should examine their pro bono policies, the resources they dedicate to black affinity groups and how they can create an overall culture of inclusion and diversity.

If they do, they will not only make a difference to their current attorneys, but vastly improve the appeal of their firm to prospective employees.

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