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Firms taking steps to achieve real results in increasing diversity?

October 11, 2007

[I’ve been under the weather and very busy. Here’s an excerpt from an article I wrote. This article appeared in the Fall 2007 issue of the Philadelphia Lawyer. If anyone has any comments, I’d love to hear them].

“If you’re a minority lawyer today, chances are that you see few similar faces in your colleagues at work. In law firms and law departments nationally, an average of 9.7 percent of their attorneys are minorities. By contrast, other professions have far greater total minority representation: 20.8 percent among accountants and auditors, 24.6 percent among physicians and surgeons, and 18.2 percent among college and university teachers. Because the industries that we serve as lawyers show greater diversity than our employers, many firms are beginning to realize that having strong diversity numbers can improve client relationships and firm culture, and they are taking a number of routes to get there.”

In the article, I discuss how firms are taking steps to increase diversity. I’d be curious to see if anyone has additional comments as to what steps firms are taking to achieve real results in increasing diversity.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. 15yearlawyer permalink
    July 9, 2009 2:46 am

    I have been a lawyer for 15 years and have seen many such programs come and go. None seem to make significant strides in improving diversity of the profession. While some programs claim modest success in limited scenarios or over a limited period of time, diversity that mirrors the population in general is becoming less and less likely. Contrast the small gains in diversity at large lawfirms (if any) with the dramatic increase in large lawfirm size and profits per partner.

    The problem with diversity programs in law is the lack of a real “economic” benefit. There is no correlation between diversity and bottom line in law. The law business is a relationship business and unfortunately minorities in general do not have the relations or influence to control significant aspect of the business of law. Decision makers, i.e. general counsel at major corporations, owners of private businesses and government officials, are not truly committed to diversity. Sure they talk diversity and state publically that diversity is a desired goal but do they really insist on efforts to improve the diversity profile of the profession.

    Think about what most attempts of diversity encompass. Typically such programs attempt to convince large lawfirms to improve their diversity by enticing them with the promise of additional business. It’s like saying “we know you have been bad but if you promise to be good and take some steps towards that promise, we will reward you with more business.” At the same time there is not one single minority owned lawfirm in the entire country that qualifies for the AmLaw 500 in terms of revenue. This inspite the fact that a corporation like McDonalds, WalMart or Bank of America could instantly create 1 by diverting 20-25% of their outside counsel legal budget to a minority owned firm. Do you think we are close to that happening?

    There are many who readily acknowledge past racial discrimination as the most significant barrier to achieving diversity in the profession. Many of these people would also argue that discrimination is no longer that barrier. To these I would ask one simple question: when did discrimination seize? What event, what place, what time or what recognizable occurence would they point to as evidence that discrimination has stopped being the reason minorities comprise such a small percentage of large lawfirm partners, of inhouse corporate counsel and of general counsel?

    Lawfirms and others explaining the problems associated with minority recruitment, retention and promotion keep saying that there are simply not enough “qualified” minorities to chose from. This assumes, of course, that quality relates to success in the profession. In my experience, I have seen no such correlation as successful lawyers come from all types of schools, all types of backgrounds and all types of experiences. The major characteristics shared by most successful lawyers (if we assume success means high pay and high status) is the color of their skin. Primarily white.

    At the same time I take issue with the whole notion of “qualified.” A large amount of what lawyers do could actually be done by nonlawyers (probably more efficiently and probably would have a great impact on diversity). In any event, does it take much “quality” to review a pile of business documents, to docket upcoming hearing or trial dates, to coordinate schedules and meetings, to write a personal injury demand letter, to settle a case for what’s offered, to represent someone in an uncontested matter, or to engage in a myriad of simple and routine practices that lawyers charge for on an everyday basis? Not to suggest all law is routine but much of it, if not most of it, could be compared to “general practice.” A much smaller portion would be analogous to “brain surgery.” You assume every doctor can diagnose and prescribe for a cold or cough. Why do we treat law as something much more advanced requiring much more “qualification” than other professions who have a much better record of diversity.

    Until there is real economic advantage to diversity, lawfirms will keep treating diversity programs primarily as marketing tools. Sure they will hire a few african americans and latinos to make sure there are a few here and there, but that’s all that is required to make Walmart happy. If one leaves the firm, then a replacement should be readily available.

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