Supporting First-Generation Professionals

Amid an intense talent war in the legal industry, law firm leaders are continually looking for better ways to attract and retain top lawyers. Modern law firm leaders recognize the value of an inclusive culture, particularly when it comes to diverse talent.

When firm leaders consider their inclusivity initiatives, they usually look at identity factors such as gender, race, and sexual orientation. But one factor is often overlooked: socioeconomic class. For many law firms, a fixation on class status and academic pedigree — and a host of assumptions about what it means to come up through non-Ivy League, non-country club channels — blinds them to the broader pool of talent available in first-generation professionals (FGPs).

Opening firm leaders’ eyes to the benefits of class diversity in hiring is the first step. But in order to retain these lawyers over the long term, law firms may need to rethink some aspects of their culture. A recent Harvard Business Review survey explored how leaders can better support first-generation professionals, defined as “those who move from working-class roots to white-collar careers,” and create a culture where everyone experiences belonging. 

For law firms, ramping up inclusivity efforts creates equitable opportunities for all members of a firm to succeed, and ensures firms can hang on to the resourceful and creative lawyers they’ve recruited. Below are three ways law firm leaders can build an inclusive culture and strengthen their support of FGPs.

  1. Make sure all members of the firm are aware of available structured programs. The HBR survey results emphasized how FGPs, in particular, found structured programs useful in building their skills, which, in turn, boosted their engagement. But offering a formal mentoring program, an employee resource group or professional development and leadership training isn’t enough. Law firm leaders need to champion these programs and encourage participation. Law firm leaders’ support of structured programs is key to ensuring that people are willing to take part in them; the more widely the programs are used, the more meaningful they are for individuals and the firm.
  2. Acknowledge how much a sense of belonging matters. Attorney and CEO of Inclusion Nation Michelle Silverthorn asked law firm leaders, in a Bloomberg Law article, to consider what it’s like to work in an office where nobody is the same race or ethnicity as you, or went to the same schools as you. “It. Is. Exhausting.” Recognizing this exhaustion and working to prevent it is crucial to fostering a culture of inclusion. The HBR article stressed that business leaders should “endorse behaviors that enable diverse perspectives and personalities to be heard.” Reach out to FGPs — rather than making assumptions about what matters to them — to learn how the firm can best support them.   
  3. Reward lawyers who prioritize diversity. Some firms credit lawyers extra hours for bonus purposes, such as mentoring and recruiting diverse lawyers, or pay significant bonuses to those who personally recruit diverse lawyers to the firm. Both efforts demonstrate a firm’s commitment to inclusivity, whether with FGPs or other diverse employees. Law firm leaders should also personally encourage FGPs to be part of mentoring and recruiting initiatives; a personal connection goes a long way toward fostering a sense of belonging.