A law firm sponsorship program is designed to advance the firm’s diversity and inclusion goals by broadening access to career-enhancing work assignments and influential advocates. Typically, the firm pairs one law firm partner (the sponsor) with one associate (the protégé). The sponsor commits to championing the protégé, and the protégé enthusiastically welcomes the chance to learn and advance within the organization. An administrative facilitator tasked with monitoring the sponsorship program stands by to ensure that the pairing is a “good match” and helps to plan events to encourage interaction. What could go wrong?
Unfortunately, it turns out that many of these well-intentioned constructs collapse under the pressure of daily work and life obligations. Though sponsorship may organically occur for some associates as a more informal one-to-one relationship, the structured model has often proven too fragile for firms constructing larger scale programs. Client demands inevitably distract the sponsor, leaving the protégé adrift, and the relationship slowly dissolves due to other competing demands. And because there is little to no accountability, intrinsic motivation, discipline, or other ties binding the relationship, it ends almost as quickly as it began.
These design flaws may help to explain why the proliferation of sponsorship has not yet moved the needle on law firm diversity. Despite these and other efforts such as mentoring programs and the formation of affinity groups, women lawyers have been stalled at around 18% of equity partners for about two decades (despite accounting for almost half or more of law school classes during that time). The percentage of minority equity partners has actually dropped 2% since 2011 at a national level. LGBT lawyers are similarly still on the outside looking in, forming about 2% of equity partners. All in all, this is a dismal outcome, particularly given the decades of programming and billions of dollars that have been dedicated to these challenges.
The Women in Law Hackathon
Frustrated with the lack of progress, Diversity Lab created the Women in Law Hackathon in mid-2016 in collaboration with Stanford Law School and Bloomberg Law to disrupt the status quo, evoke some slow and structured thinking, and spark new innovations/solutions aimed at advancing women in the legal profession. The participants – 54 law firm management-level partners from AmLaw 200 firms, 18 talent experts, and 9 Stanford Law students – generated several new and innovative ideas that were shared across the legal industry and beyond in hopes of widespread adoption. Following the Hackathon, many of the participating firms banded together to join a Hackathon Alliance to pilot five of the ideas, including a new leadership pipeline approach called the Mansfield Rule. (It launched as a pilot program with 43 law firms in June 2017. To become Mansfield Certified, these firms must consider at least 30% women or minority lawyers for key leadership positions in the firm over the next year.)
One of the other ideas generated by the Hackathon teams was a new approach for sponsorship called OnTrack. Diversity Lab is now poised to pilot OnTrack with 15 firms in two versions: OnTrack for Partnership, aimed at associates the firm hopes to elevate to partner within two to three years, and OnTrack for Leadership, for recently promoted non-equity and equity partners that focuses on their advancement into leadership roles.
OnTrack is designed to be “stickier” than earlier generations of sponsorship programs by aligning with behavioral science that is backed by technology, gamification, and teamwork.
OnTrack uses a custom technology platform built by Diversity Lab that leverages gamification techniques to foster accountability and encourage engagement. Points, leaderboards, the opportunity for “shout-outs and likes,” and goal-tracking features drive team engagement and introduce an element of healthy inter-team and intra-team competition. In taking OnTrack from a Hackathon idea to a pilot program, we looked to innovative companies and professional service firms, including Deloitte and Google, that have successfully driven major improvements in employee engagement through gamification.
Over the course of history, games have naturally evolved to draw in and sustain players’ interest using what we now call “behavioral engagement strategies,” which science confirms are effective in multiple contexts, including at work. Gamification isn’t entirely new to law firms. Many firms already use game strategy to drive participation in training, pro bono, or other programs. Similarly, for years, organizations such as Chambers and The American Lawyer have published firm rankings on a variety of categories in part to appeal to lawyers’ competitive drives and motivate them to surpass their neighbor firms. It has also been shown that teams working in a game format can solve complex problems more effectively and efficiently than individuals working alone.
At the same time that gamification has gained traction, the psychology of habit formation has emerged as an effective method to embed goals into the daily patterns of personal and professional lives. Consider a lofty goal such as “write a book,” translated into a daily habit of, “write 1,000 words each day.” Social media platforms such as LinkedIn and Facebook have done this quite successfully as well — they draw you in one “like” at a time until you are habitually using the platforms.
The most recent research tells us that the most “actionable” form of gamification couples extrinsic motivators such as points and leaderboards with intrinsic motivators — meaningful activities that allow for connection, achievement, and feedback. The OnTrack platform is designed to encompass both of these critical elements to promote education, collaboration, and accountability.
As another important factor to improve upon the failings of typical sponsorship programs, each protégé is matched with a team of advocates rather than an individual. Four to five advocates – including a firm leader, a partner in the same practice, a semi-retired partner in a different practice, and an external coach – work in concert to support and champion the protégé’s career growth, visibility, and access to influential work and people. This model stabilizes the fragile one-on-one structure by spreading responsibilities and creating accountability among the group, thus minimizing the effects of schedule fluctuations and other distractions. The team structure also allows the protégé to benefit from a community of powerbrokers each of who bring something important but different to the mix. Because of this feature, OnTrack aligns with the emerging emphasis on collaborative, team-based approaches within law firms. And, research confirms that when working to achieve a complicated goal (such as the increasingly difficult project of transitioning an associate to a partner), teams perform better than individuals (or even computers!).
One of our goals in creating the Women in Law Hackathon was to establish a framework for and culture of knowledge sharing so others could benefit from our collective learning process. To that end, the Hackathon materials and outcomes are publicly posted on the Diversity Lab website. We also plan to be open and transparent about what works and doesn’t work with OnTrack, the Mansfield Rule, and the other pilots, while, of course, preserving the participating firms’ sensitive and confidential data.
And, to keep this momentum and appetite for new approaches and ideas going strong, we plan to launch a series of “Diversity in Law Hackathons” in 2018 with law firm and legal department lawyers to continue hacking tough diversity and inclusion challenges. Stay tuned for more information on the next wave of disruptive diversity innovations!
Caren has more than 20 years of experience as the head of recruitment, development, and diversity with law firms such as Arnold & Porter, Cooley, and Weil Gotshal. In addition to co-founding Lawyer Metrics and serving as President from 2010-2013, Caren created and launched the OnRamp Fellowship — the first “Returnship” ever launched in the legal profession for women lawyers — through the Diversity Lab. Her work has been featured in Fast Company, The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, The National Law Journal, and on Fox News. She is the author of a number of books and publications, and has received awards in recognition of her work.
Lisa Kirby joined Diversity Lab with over 15 years of experience in the legal profession as a practicing attorney, talent management professional, and law firm consultant. Lisa began her career as a litigator, practicing at two large law firms. She then spent several years as a professional development manager at Goodwin Procter LLP, where her contributions included helping launch and lead the firm’s Women’s Initiative and developing a new parent coaching program. As a consultant with Edge International, Lisa advised a wide range of domestic and international law firms on strategic and talent management issues. She is the author of several articles on professional development in law firms. Throughout, Lisa’s passion has been the advancement of women in the legal profession and she is thrilled to be able to contribute to that effort in her role as Director of Research & Knowledge Sharing.