The Legal Face of Diversity

A recent study underlines unresolved challenges for African Americans in the legal profession, causing organizations to advocate for improved diversity efforts

Besides lacking required billable hours, Robinson says additional challenges include lawyers missing out on mentor relationships and not having access to training and development opportunities within firms. And even in 2010, Richardson notes how speculation about a lawyer’s level of qualification, and attributing the success they’ve had to affirmative action, are still apparent. These thoughts are certainly outdated, she notes.

“It’s certainly a buyers market right now in terms of diverse attorneys with outstanding credentials, particularly African Americans,” says Veta T. Richardson, executive director of the Minority Corporate Counsel Association.
But it’s not only African American associates being hit hard. Minority partners are also being forced out of firms, according to Richardson.

“I’ve heard about too many minorities who went the distance to make partner at their firm and now, all of a sudden, times are difficult and they are finding they lack the level of support and the client relationships to remain viable members of their firm.”

Though the talent may be out there, there is heightened concern that the legal profession is still underrepresented  in terms of diversity. According to statistics from the National Association for Law Placement, in 2005, out of 55,113 law firm partners nationwide, only 4.6% of partners were of color. Out of 60,367 law firm associates nationwide, 15.6% of them were of color. In 2009, out of 61,821 partners nationwide, 6.1% were minority. Out of 63,168 associates nationwide, 19.7% were minority.

With diversity numbers seemingly not up to par, advocates—in legal organizations such as MCCA and Corporate Counsel Women of Color and in corporate America, such as Roderick “Rick” Palmore, general counsel for General Mills and one of black enterprise’s Top Corporate Counsels—are requesting private law firms be more proactive in their diversity efforts and utilize diverse lawyers on staff. Palmore is the founder of A Call to Action, an initiative that began in 1999 to get corporations onboard with diversity in the legal profession. A number of corporations have demonstrated their commitment to law diversity, some of which include Wal-Mart, Verizon, Procter & Gamble, TIAA-CREF, and the Coca-Cola Co.

For lawyers struggling at their firms, Robinson says investing in your own career development is key. Be proactive by networking with Caucasian co-workers and participating in company functions. But for those who find that the firm environment is no longer suitable, consider going in-house. According to Vera Sullivan, founder and president of Diversityforce L.L.C., a firm that specializes in career advancement for diversity professionals, joining a corporation can provide more career opportunities. “Lawyers can enter the corporation’s legal department and after establishing successful relationships across the company with business managers, may be able to transition into other business lines of the company including, for example, governance or government affairs, ” she explains.

This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue of Black Enterprise magazine.

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