Report shows increase in the number of minority attorneys

By Douglas Levy
BridgeTower Media Newswires

DETROIT — A recently released report on diversity in U.S. law firms shows a year-over-year increase in the number of minority attorneys.

According to the National Association for Law Placement, minority partners are at 8.05 percent, up from 2009's 6.05 percent; and 22.72 percent for associates, a 3 percent jump from 2009.
Damali A. Sahu, who co-chairs Detroit-based Bodman PLC's Diversity Committee, said that while any increase is a good one, it shouldn’t be a “slight” one — though she understands why that is.

“All of the firms are focused on the issue,” she said. “We recognize that you serve your clients better by having diversity of thought and a diverse group of attorneys.

“But part of the challenge is the classic pipeline issue. There is more demand for diverse talent than potential applicants or attorneys to join firms.”

Jehan Crump-Gibson of C&G Solutions PLC in Lathrup Village is president of the Detroit-based Wolverine Bar Association. She said that while the state and nation have seen overall lower admissions in law schools over the past year, a lack of early exposure to a career in law is a factor to consider, too.

“Last year at Wayne Law, the incoming class had only one black male. That was frightening to us,” Crump-Gibson said.

To counter such trends, law firms and legal organizations are doing everything they can to increase minority student awareness about the legal profession.

Then, once graduates get placement in a law office, the goal becomes keeping them there.

Crump-Gibson said the Wolverine Bar’s overall core commitment is “Equal access, equal justice.”

“The way we achieve that goal is through diversity in the profession — and the way we achieve diversity is through pipeline programming,” she said.

Over the past 30 years, that has included programs targeting minority law students, such as a clerkship program with large law firms and the federal bench. A new Wayne County Circuit Court clerkship will start in the fall.

In addition, the Wolverine Bar is teaming with Big Brothers Big Sisters on a high school student mentor initiative.

The program is called AIM - Advocating, Inspiring and Mentoring. It has 19 students from Osborn High School on Detroit's East Side who visit downtown law firms monthly. They are paired with professionals who give them exposure to the field and encouragement to pursue a law degree.

Wolverine also has partnered with fellow minority bar group The D. Augustus Straker Bar Association for a high school oral advocacy competition named for Martin Luther King Jr.

“Last year we had 89 students submit essays and then six finalists,” said Crump-Gibson, who sits on the State Bar of Michigan’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Committee. “Not only do they get experience arguing before judges and being paired with attorney mentors, but they also get [prize] money.”

The Wolverine Bar is even thinking earlier than high school. It’s teaming with Pretty Brown Girl, a national group that teaches female empowerment to K-12 minority students. The alliance will sponsor a school and have judges and lawyers speak to students.

Of course, colleges are where the ball is really in play. To that end, Sahu said Bodman makes it a priority gets to know minority students early on, normally within the second year.

“It could be that diverse students don’t have a lot of exposure or knowledge about private law firms,” Sahu said. “It’s making those initial early connections that can increase the pool of available talent.”

But in a specialized field like intellectual property, in which engineering is a prerequisite, IP boutique firms can have things tougher than general practice ones.

“Our firm is going into various colleges and building awareness of IP as a profession for people [pursuing] a technical degree,” said Sangeeta G. Shah, chief diversity officer at IP firm Brooks Kushman in Southfield.

“Legal diversity is challenging enough, but we have one more layer that adds even more complexity, so we’ve had to take the bull by the horns to raise awareness.”

But raising awareness continues once the student becomes an associate within the law firm.

Rodney D. Martin, who for 12 years has served as diversity partner at Warner Norcross & Judd LLP in Grand Rapids, said that recruiting is one thing, but retaining is another.

He said the latter challenge involves addressing unconscious bias and developing the internal processes to be an inclusive organization.

He added that during 2006-07, WNJ adopted a way of tracking work being done firmwide, in order to see who was assigning work to whom.

This, Martin said, enabled WNJ’s director of professional development and professional staff committee to see how assignments are distributed, and to be sure minorities are part of it.

“Our practice groups have developed competency-based milestones that people are measured against, so we have an objective way of measuring,” he said. “If you invite diverse people into your firm and they don’t feel like they’re part of the organization or given the same opportunities as others, they’re not going to feel included and they’re not going to stay.”

Martin said WNJ - which is one of 12 Grand Rapids firms that make up the Managing Partners Diversity Collaborative, a diversity-and-inclusion collective - also has revised its evaluation system to try to interrupt the potential for unconscious bias.

“A few years ago, all of our firm leaders went through an unconscious bias training program,” he said. “We have been looking to find ways to structurally make our organization a more inclusive one. Those are successes for us and will continue to lead to an improvement in the numbers.

“One of my favorite quotes from a diversity consultant is, ‘Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.’ I think that really distinguishes the two concepts and they’re both very important. But law firms need to address the inclusion part of that. Otherwise, the diversity efforts will never be successful.”



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