Diversity Initiatives at Law Firms

Diversity has become a big issue for law firms. From the ABA to the PBA, and down to the local bar level, leaders are talking about increasing diversity at law firms. The sad truth is that this push for diversity originated in demands made by clients. Corporate counsel have been issuing guidelines for diversity growth expected from their outside counsel for some time. Now they’re making outright demands. For example, take a look at this very recent newspaper article about Wal-Mart requirements; and an article about a ground-breaking initiative by the New York County Lawyers Association to disclose confidential demographic data about the composition of law firm teams to corporate counsel.

Why all the fuss? Just take a look at the data from EEOC and NALP. The number of minorities employed at law firms doesn’t compare favorably to the number graduating from law schools. And the proportional number ultimately achieving partnership doesn’t compare to the proportional number of white males who were associates. In other words, there is an even wider gap in diversity when looking at law firm leaders. And, it should be noted, this gap is even evident in positions of leadership in bar associations.

According to the 2003 EEOC report on diversity in law firms, since 1975, the representation of women, African Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans as professionals in larger legal service firms has increased substantially. Women increased from 14.4 percent in 1975 to 40.3 percent in 2002. African Americans from 2.3 percent to 4.4 percent. Hispanics from 0.7 percent to 2.9 percent, and Asians from 0.5 percent to 5.3 percent. But when one looks at the the proportionate increase in the number of graduates from law school, the picture is not as encouraging. Then look at the numbers making it through to partners, and a much clearer picture emerges. Only 1% of partners nationwide are black and Hispanic. The truth is that minorities are leaving law firms in droves.

Theories abound as to why minorities are woefully underrepresented within partnership ranks at large law firms. Recently, UCLA law professor Richard Sander, advanced a controversial new hypothesis to explain the disparity. In “The Racial Paradox of the Corporate Law Firm,” he contends that large law firms appreciably lower their academic standards to bring in more African-American associates (and to a lesser degree, Hispanic associates) in the interest of achieving diversity. He posits that this “grade gap” ultimately hinders the minority associates.

Whether they are less able than their white colleagues or merely perceived as such, they find themselves “marginalized and superfluous, and their predictions that they will not be long with the firm are fully borne out.” This attrition, in turn, perpetuates the white-male-partner status quo. Attrition for these groups at corporate firms is “devastatingly high, with blacks from their first year onwards leaving firms at two or three times the rate of whites.” Actually, according to NALP statistics, the numbers are even more bleak.

This controversial and somewhat “in your face” theory has academics and bar leaders in a tizzy. Could it be that the push for diversity has actually had a deleterious effect?

I have my own theories. They are based on anecdotal observation, with no fancy statistical analysis behind them. But the observation has been close and personal, and has covered a span of 25 years. Here are a few of my thoughts:

1. Minorities find few if any role models and mentors they can relate to as associates.

2. Many times minorities are unintentionally marginalized in terms of the assignments they are given.

3. Minorities are often scrutinized more carefully when it comes to promotion and reward benchmark achievements.

4. The “sink or swim” environment is more difficult to navigate for minority candidates, because they are further removed from, or unaware of, available support resources within or outside the firm found by their white counterparts. Part of this problem stems from the fact that they do not have a “network” of similarly-situated associates at other firms who they can readily share information with to supplement the information gap at their own firms.

5. Minorities face and silently struggle with cultural and social gaps at firms, which make them less comfortable in establishing supportive relationships.

6. Most firms are woefully inadequate at mentoring. This has a greater negative impact on minority candidates.

7. Firms fail to make any allowance for special needs. This is particularly evident for women associates of childbearing years. Off-ramping often is the only choice for women attorneys trying to balance child-rearing and their career. Many times women cannot recover the lost momentum. This has had an especially strong disparate impact on black women, who have the highest departure rate of any minority.

For additional resources and information on diversity you can turn to your local or state bar association. The Association of Legal Administrators has been focused on this the longest. You can find their available resources here.

I believe that the answers to truly achieving diversity, or at least making major inroads toward equalizing the achievement “factor”, e.g. likelihood of eventually making it from baby lawyer to partner, will ultimately lie in educating the top partners in firms. They will have to re-examine their mentoring and socialization programs; their work assignments and feedback mechanisms; and take a hard look at the benefits and work arrangements offered to ensure they account for varying needs.

At the bar level there must be much greater initiatives to create supportive networks. As I travel around the state providing attorney CLE seminars, I often note that there is not a single face in the crowd which is not that of a white male. At some bar associations I find not one single woman at the event, let alone someone of color. If you are a white male attorney, imaging your comfort level if you were the only white male in attendance at virtually every bar event. Or one of only three women out of 50 in attendance. Clearly, some of this is a catch-22. But these minority graduates are working somewhere. I can’t help but think that they are not joining and/or participating at the bar association level because they are not finding sufficiently relevant programs, and not being put in touch with their peers in a meaningful way.

Ok, I admit I don’t have a lot of answers. But I sure have a lot more questions waiting to be asked.

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