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ABA study finds minority lawyers have ‘miles to go’ in the profession

By Nancy McCarthy
Staff Writer

Minority attorneys continue to face serious obstacles to success in the legal profession, from initial job opportunities to career advancement, and they remain grossly underrepresented in top-level private sector jobs, according to a report issued last month by an American Bar Association commission.

Miles to Go: Progress of Minorities in the Legal Profession also reported these findings:

  • Although African-Americans are the best-represented group among minority lawyers nationwide (3.9 percent of attorneys and 8.8 percent of judges), their pace of entry into the profession has slowed and the number of black law students has fallen to a 12-year low.
  • Progress for minority women lawyers has been particularly slow, and despite their growing numbers (44 percent of all minority lawyers in 2000), they are almost completely excluded from top private sector jobs and have a higher law firm attrition rate than any other group.
  • Minorities in law firms do not have the same access to clients and business networks as their white colleagues, and among partners, they tend to be clustered at the bottom of a firm’s financial and status pecking order.
  • The 10 percent minority representation among lawyers lags well behind that of most other professions, including physicians (24.6 percent), physical scientists (30.1 percent), computer scientists (23.1 percent), economists (20.3 percent), accountants (20.8 percent) and postsecondary teachers (24.6 percent).

“Minority progress in the profession remains frustratingly slow,” concluded Elizabeth Chambliss, a New York Law School professor who wrote the report for the ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Legal Profession. “The legal profession is significantly more racially integrated than it was 50 years ago, and even 25 years ago. Compared to 10 years ago, however, there has been very little progress. And unless law faculties, employers, corporate clients and bar associations renew their commitment to racial integration, there is little hope that things will improve significantly during the next 10 years.”

The commission was created in 1986 to promote “full and equal participation” of minorities in the legal profession, and Chambliss has prepared two previous reports.

The new findings come on the heels of a controversial law review article by a UCLA professor who suggested that ending racial preferences at law schools would likely increase the number of African-American lawyers because affirmative action places black students in law schools where they cannot compete academically.

The report focused on four minority groups: African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans and Native Americans. Asian-Americans are the fastest-growing minority group among lawyers — their numbers nearly doubled between 1990 and 2000 — and comprise nearly half of all minority associates and almost one-third of all minority partners in the nation’s largest law firms.

Hispanic representation has remained fairly constant in the last decade and Native American representation is not only miniscule but has declined from .201 percent of all lawyers in 1990 to .199 percent in 2000.

After graduation from law school, Chambliss wrote, minorities are less likely than whites to win judicial clerkship positions or to go into private practice, and more likely to begin their careers in government or public interest jobs. In top level jobs, fewer than 4.4 percent of partners in the nation’s 250 largest firms and only 4.3 percent of corporate counsel are minority.

Chambliss cites an over-reliance by law schools on Law School Admission Test scores and by legal employers on law school rankings, class rank, law review membership and clerkships as barriers to minority students and lawyers.

Despite what the commission sees as a lack of progress, it did report what it calls a “happy list of incremental gains” that includes:

  • In the private sector, minorities continue to enter law firms at an increasing rate: minority associates grew from 12.1 percent in 1999 to 14.6 percent in 2000 and reached 17.2 percent in the nation’s largest law firms.
  • Minority representation among corporate counsel also increased, from 9 percent in 1998 to 12.5 percent in 2001.
  • Minority representation in the public sector increased incrementally: among federal government lawyers, from 16.5 percent in 2000 to 16.9 percent in 2002; among administrative law judges, from 9.4 percent in 2000 to 9.9 percent in 2002; and among federal judges, from 16.8 percent in 1999 to 18.6 percent in 2004.

The commission also found “some light on the horizon” in two developments. The “business justification” for diversity has begun to catch on in corporate circles, where a recognition that the U.S. population will soon become a “majority minority” has prompted efforts to diversify.

Second, the Supreme Court’s decision in Grutter v. Bollinger upholding race-based affirmative action in the University of Michigan Law School admissions “promises renewed support for efforts to increase minority access to legal education, including admission to elite law schools.” The commission called the ruling “arguably the most important development” in the last four years.

“These twin developments suggest the dawn of a new era of attention and commitment to diversity at all stages of lawyers’ careers, from admission to universities and law schools to advancement in law firms and other work settings,” the report concludes.

Despite those developments, the commission noted the persistence of traditional obstacles, including both discrimination or outright racism and ongoing exclusion from the economic and educational opportunities that are central to professional success.

Not surprisingly, five California cities and one county provide the highest statistics when it comes to law firm diversity. Although Miami has the highest percentage of both minority partners and associates at law firms, it is followed by San Jose, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Orange County and San Diego. New York City falls in the middle.

Christopher Prince, past president of the John M. Langston Bar Association of Los Angeles and an associate at Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, suggested one reason the legal profession lags behind others is its conservatism. “They have ways of doing things and just in general, processes in the profession change extremely slowly. You’re going to have law firms hiring and promoting the same way they hired and promoted years ago. In contrast, corporations and their law departments tend to be a little better. They’re not quite as stuck in the 19th century.”

Prince said law firms also have difficulty recruiting minority lawyers because they are not diverse and are therefore not inviting to recruits.

Nonetheless, he said he thinks law firms are trying hard to attract minority lawyers. “I think the thing that would be depressing, and the jury’s still out on this, is did we peak? Did we sort of make this push over the last 30 years and then we’re done? The fact is, we have an entirely new set of challenges. The reality is that to take the next step will take a similar amount of effort.”

Chambliss added a couple of additional explanations for the lack of diversity. One is the dominance of private business clients in the legal profession, where “one’s professional status depends significantly on the status of one’s clients.” Another possibility is that the legal profession is “more rankings conscious than other professions, such that class rank, school rank, firm rank, etc., become the sole criterion for judging professional potential and success. Such a system tends to promote inbreeding.”

The commission offers a series of recommendations to improve the progress of minorities in the profession, including better research on the distribution of lawyers by gender and race and on demographics of lawyers in different practice settings, and heightened fundraising for research and program development to promote full and equal participation of minorities in the profession. It also urges law schools to pursue racial diversity among students and faculty, investing in admissions procedures that Chambliss says will increase costs to comply with Supreme Court rulings in the University of Michigan case, and to compile data on the careers of their own graduates, linking postgraduate placement information to admissions credentials.

“If the legal profession is to successfully confront the obstacles to minority participation and remain economically competitive in an increasingly diverse society,” the report concludes, “the profession must commit itself to systematic and critical self-study.”

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