Research Findings

In elite professional firms, skill development practices help and hurt racial and ethnic minorities


February 4, 2021

Many large professional firms—such as law firms, accounting firms, consulting firms, and investment banks—make substantial efforts to recruit members of racial and ethnic minority groups at the entry level. However, the numbers of people of color in such firms drop significantly at more senior levels. All too often, these professionals find it difficult to obtain recognition and responsibility, and leave their firms when their initial hopes turn to discouragement. Why does this happen over and over?

An important key to this puzzle lies in the process of skill development in professional work.

New professionals typically leave their educational programs well-trained in their field’s substantive body of knowledge, but lacking most of the skills they will need to actually practice their professions—such as problem-solving, teamwork, managing subordinates, bringing in new business, and handling client relationships. Professionals must acquire these skills through on-the-job learning. That learning happens faster and more easily when a junior professional can turn to a more senior mentor or sponsor who provides coaching and helps the protégé obtain skill-building assignments.

Research shows, though, that more senior professionals and managers prefer to mentor two kinds of younger people: those who are socially similar to themselves, and those who already seem more likely to be successful. If most firm partners and managers are White men, then, minority professionals are less likely to receive mentoring than their White (male) peers. Studies repeatedly find that minority associates perceive this disadvantage and that it plays an important role in their decisions to leave. Those who do not quit are likely to find that they lack important skills and experience when they face their firm’s deadline for up-or-out promotion or termination.

Can firms do anything about this seemingly intractable problem? Some firms offer targeted programs aimed at minorities, but many more offer more general skill development programs and practices. Knowing that on-the-job skill development is essential for their junior professionals to grow into high-functioning practitioners, most large firms have implemented policies intended to help.  

In a recent study with Fiona Kay, we wondered whether some of these policies might at least partially offset the mentoring disadvantage that minorities experience. If so, we would expect to see more minorities staying with those firms and moving into their higher ranks. We also wondered whether a longer expected time to promotion (or “partnership track”) would help minorities by giving them more time to acquire needed skills.

To investigate these possibilities, we looked at data on 626 large law firm offices across the United States in two years: 1996 and 2005. We focused on six policies and practices: a formal mentoring program, a policy of giving early responsibility, a formal training program, assignment rotation (in other words, new lawyers are rotated among practice areas and/or specific supervising partners), official expressions of a cultural commitment to skill development, and the length of the firm’s partnership track. Using regression analysis, we examined the relationship between the state of these practices in each firm between 1996 and 2005 and the proportion of partners in 2005 who were Black, Latinx, and Asian.

Our most striking findings were for Black partners. Formal mentoring programs were associated with a larger presence of African-Americans among firm partners. A longer partnership track was also linked to higher Black numbers among partners. In contrast, formal training programs were associated with fewer Black partners. Most surprisingly, organizational expressions of commitment to training and developing junior lawyers—which might have been expected to motivate partners to offer mentoring more widely—also had a negative relationship with the representation of African-Americans among partners.

We saw the same surprising negative relationship between firm commitment to skill development and representation among partners for Latinx lawyers. A policy of encouraging early responsibility was more promising: it was linked to a higher Latinx presence among partners. The numbers of Latinx partners were not affected by formal mentoring programs, formal training programs, or partnership track length. There were no discernible effects of skill development practices for Asian lawyers.

Why would formal training programs and expressions of commitment to training and developing new lawyers have negative effects on partner diversity?

This is plausible if we recall that professional firms are partnerships (or the legal equivalent) where partners largely function independently of each other. To be effectively implemented, firm policies must actively engage individual partners, but must also give them clear, consistent guidance. A formal mentoring program where partners are matched with associates is likely to do both. Formal training programs are handled by specialized staff or even outsourced to external training providers, so supervising partners are usually not involved. Expressions of commitment to skill development as a firm value call upon individual partners to act, but do not provide clear guidance; thus, they may simply lead partners to increase the level of mentoring they provide to protégés that they would favor in any event.

Our findings challenge professional firms to reassess their mix of developmental policies and practices. For example, formal training programs, which tend to reduce diversity, are much more common than formal mentoring programs, which tend to increase it. In evaluating their current initiatives or considering new ones, firms should take into account not only overall learning outcomes, but also the potential impacts of these initiatives on the retention and career advancement of minorities.

Read more

Elizabeth H. Gorman and Fiona M. Kay. 2020. “Skill Development Practices and Racial-Ethnic Diversity in Elite Professional Firms.” in Professional Work: Knowledge, Power and Social Inequalities, Vol. 34 of Research in the Sociology of Work, edited by Elizabeth H. Gorman and Steven Vallas. For a free, pre-publication version of the chapter, please click here.

Image: incognito7nyc via flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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