Areas for Improvement

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Challenges and Recommendations to Addressing Diversity in the Legal Profession

According to a 2014 review by the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession (IILP) — a nonprofit organization committed to addressing the lack of diversity and inclusion in the legal field — minority representation among U.S. lawyers increased from 9.7 percent in 2000 to 13.1 percent in 2010. The review, which includes researched articles from 32 experts, also shows that progress for different groups varies.

● Specifically, data from the U.S. Department of Labor for the years 2009 to 2013 show fluctuations in representation as follows:

● African Americans in the profession decreased from 4.7 to 4.2 percent.

● Asian Americans increased from 4.1 to 5.1 percent.

● Hispanics increased from 2.8 to 5.1 percent.

● Women dipped to a low of 31.1 percent in 2012, then rebounded to 33.1 percent in 2013.

While the legal profession has evaluated the issue of diversity and inclusion for decades — and a slight increase in minority representation may be indicative of its efforts — the reality for underrepresented groups is not overwhelmingly encouraging; many of these communities are still greatly underrepresented in leadership positions. For example:

● Few diverse partners serve as billing or relationship partners for corporate clients.

● 84.1 percent of diverse partners have served on their firm’s diversity committee, but only 8.1 percent have served on their firm’s executive committee.

● Asian Pacific Americans are the group least likely to be promoted from associate to partner at their firms.

● Women non-equity partners are more pessimistic than their male counterparts about their chances of becoming equity partners.

Addressing diversity and inclusion in the legal profession is important because lawyers play critical roles in society, says Sandra Yamate, chief executive officer at IILP. “Lawyers are not just representing clients in court, but they also serve as judges, elected officials, and government agency attorneys who support the development of legislation,” she says.

Yamate points to a variety of factors that present challenges related to progress. Data show that African American, Asian American, and Hispanic lawyers leave their firms — and the profession — at disproportionately higher rates than other groups, which leaves a smaller pool of qualified minority candidates to move into leadership positions.

“Some leave, or are asked to leave, because they can’t generate business, but others report leaving due to marginalization or isolation in the workplace, or cultural conflict and perceptions of bias,” says Yamate.

Addressing the Pipeline
While addressing diversity and inclusion issues within law firms and corporate legal departments is important, there is also a need to ensure a diverse pool of candidates. This responsibility, Yamate says, lies with colleges, universities, and law schools.

“There are fewer minority law school graduates, which may be partly related to a decrease in law school admissions, but we need to make sure that [these] students know about opportunities in our profession,” she says, adding that it’s also important to ensure they are prepared to work in today’s law firms.

One step colleges and universities can take to better prepare students is to broaden the typical “pre-law” curriculum, Yamate suggests. “I encourage undergraduates to take a wide range of classes that require writing and public speaking,” she says.

Data show that African American, Asian American, and Hispanic lawyers leave their firms — and the profession — at disproportionately higher rates than other groups, which leaves a smaller pool of qualified minority candidates to move into leadership positions.

Classes that challenge students to think about perspectives outside their immediate environment are also important. “Lawyers often discuss philosophical and ethical issues, so studying philosophy and learning how to evaluate different issues from other perspectives prepares students for law,” says Yamate.

Inviting practicing attorneys to speak to classes of future law students is not uncommon, but educational leaders and advisers should give students a chance to hear from a diverse mix of attorneys. Young attorneys are often invited to classes because faculty believe students may relate more to them due to their age and similar college experiences, but Yamate says they don’t have the same perspective on a career in law as a lawyer with 15 to 20 years of experience.

Inviting a diverse group of attorneys with varying levels of experience and from a variety of backgrounds — as well as those of different races, genders, and ages — gives students a broader view of the profession and the opportunities available.

To address the issue of minority lawyers leaving firms and the profession due to feelings of isolation, Yamate recommends creating programs that teach students how to work with people from different backgrounds early in their education. She cites a study in which students were split into diverse teams to develop solutions to problems. The male and female African American, Hispanic, Asian American, and Caucasian students were all equally competent; initially, however, the African American students were uncomfortable offering opinions, and the white male students were afraid to say anything that might be considered politically incorrect.

“At the end of the project, not only were all members of the groups working well together, but they saw each other as individuals, equals, and friends,” Yamate says. “At least one student reported going back to school and actively seeking out groups that were more diverse, which is one way to better prepare for a career in law.”●

Sheryl S. Jackson is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.