The diversification of the legal field is continuing at a crawl, a recent survey found, but improvement can be achieved through commitment, local minority lawyers said.
The survey, which was conducted by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association and Vault, a company that ranks and reviews employers in all industries, found minority lawyers made up 15 percent of attorneys at law firms surveyed in 2014, compared to 13.8 percent in 2007. The survey asked 247 law firms across the nation to provide employment and demographic data. The survey also recorded slight increases of less than a percentage point in minority men as attorneys in firms from 6.80 to 7.59 percent, and from 7.01 percent to 7.40 percent for minority women.
Kenneth Roberts, a partner at Roberts & Bishop, an African-American-owned firm in Indianapolis, said part of the reason for the near stall in diversity increases is due to the number of other opportunities young students have today. He said it’s difficult for anyone right now to break into the legal profession, minorities and non-minorities alike, and “the word is getting around.”
“People that graduate (law school) are taking initial jobs not in law and in non-lawyer positions and that’s a little discouraging,” Roberts said. “These people have high student debt and they’re trying to work their way into the law field. We can’t all have large entry-level salaries.”
Roberts said there may be more opportunities for African-American lawyers than Caucasian lawyers because “of the nature of the profession” in that many firms seek to hire diverse attorneys. He also said more African-Americans should be encouraged when they’re younger to go into law.
“There can especially be opportunities in corporations and those types of areas,” Roberts said.
Gerald Coleman, a partner at Coleman Stevenson LLP, agreed that the increasing number of professional opportunities outside of law has taken minorities away from the legal field, especially African-Americans. He said firms and bar associations have to make a commitment to diversity in order to see changes at both the school level, and once a minority is hired.
“Someone has to make an effort to say ‘Look, we want a diversified employment workforce,’” Coleman said. “And there’s no magic formula once you do recruit a minority associate. Make sure the attorney is well integrated into that firm and that attorney will excel just like anyone else.”
He said a firm that was trying to diversify asked him if he thought the firm should assign a minority associate it recently hired to a minority partner or just any partner, and Coleman said to assign him to anyone.
“Assign them like you would anyone else,” Coleman said. “They don’t need anything unusual. These firms are creating special programs and that creates problems. It creates a little divide in firms.”
He said if minority lawyers are treated just like anyone else at firms, they will stay and they will succeed.
“The key is if they feel comfortable there,” he said.
Coleman said there is always a market for good lawyers who litigate well, no matter their racial background. If a lawyer does good work in their field, they’ll get clients and be able to maintain their business. If not, they won’t.
“We had our troubles when we started but if you do good work, you’ll get good clients. They’ll give referrals and it will take off from there. It worked for us. There is definitely an opportunity,” he said.
Sonia Das, an attorney with Inman & Fitzgibbons Ltd. and chair of the diversity committee for the Indiana State Bar Association, agreed that firms need to work on retention.
“To increase partner percentages, women and minority lawyers need to stay at their firms long enough to demonstrate leadership ability to qualify for promotion to those positions. Comparing rates of attrition among minorities, women or other groups, we need to better understand why lawyers leave law firms. No doubt, diversity issues play a role in the decision of many. For others, leaving a large law firm after a few years is part of a long-range plan for which diversity may only be one factor.”
Das said studies show people gravitate to those they think are like them and for women and minorities, that means their contacts are less likely to be partners or managers because of the numbers currently in those positions. Because of that, minorities and Caucasians alike may need to step out of their comfort zones.
“This may mean that we must be intentional about interacting with people who are unlike us,” Das said. “From a management standpoint, firms can develop a rotation so that each managing partner mentors and assigns work to each associate and can develop other programs aimed at making sure there is diversity in interactions,” Das said.
But she said it isn’t all on management. Minority attorneys should take the initiative to reach out as well.
Another part of the problem is that some lawyers don’t know what role to play in the diversity issue, she said. She gave the example of senior white male attorneys who can feel left out of discussions for fear of saying something wrong or offensive. Their inactive support of a diversity initiative can be perceived as lack of interest or buy in from them, especially if they are in management.
“Organizations with inclusive environments understand the value in a diverse workforce is that interactions with and contributions from people who are different from us make the organization better. Minority lawyers benefit from receiving input from people who are different from them, just as having the input from a minority lawyer on an issue may produce a more desirable outcome,” Das said.
She said everyone needs to buy in to get more minorities in the law field, and re-emphasized that sometimes that means everyone needs to break out of their comfort zones.
“As our profession recognizes that diversity is an issue that requires everyone’s participation, I think we will better understand how to increase diversity in our profession and improve advancement of women and minority lawyers,” Das said.•