ABA President Carolyn Lamm discusses next steps to achieving

by Vault Law Editors | August 09, 2010

  • My Vault

On July 30, 2010, Vault and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA) held their 5th Annual Legal Diversity Career Fair at the Renaissance Hotel in Washington, D.C. More than 1,000 law students and lateral associates registered for the event, where hiring partners and recruiters from some 30 law firms, government agencies and corporate law departments were on hand to meet with candidates, review their resumes, offer advice and answer questions.

The event kicked off with a special breakfast where my colleague Brian unveiled the company’s 2011 Law Firm Diversity Rankings, the result of our annual Law Firm Associate Survey. Vault also honored the Top 20 law firms—led by this year’s overall winner, Carlton Fields—who were the most highly rated by their own associates for their commitment to hiring, retaining and promoting diverse attorneys.

The event’s lunch featured Carolyn Lamm, outgoing president of the American Bar Association and a partner at White & Case, as the keynote speaker. Recently named one of “Washington’s Most Influential Women Lawyers” by The National Law Journal, Ms. Lamm has, during her tenure as ABA president, established a Presidential Commission on Diversity as well as a Commission on the Impact of the Economic Crisis on the Profession and Legal Needs. On August 10, 2010, Ms. Lamm turns over the helm to President-Elect Stephen Zack, a partner at Boies, Schiller & Flexner and the first Hispanic American to serve as ABA president.

Before her address, Ms. Lamm took time to sit down with me to discuss the state of diversity in law firms, highlight some of the ABA’s goals and initiatives, and forecast what a truly diverse profession will look like. In the first part of our conversation, Ms. Lamm addressed some of the challenges to increasing diversity, especially with respect to women and minority attorneys in law firms. The latter half focused on ways in which the profession is tackling these challenges and areas where progress is being made.

VAULT: How would you characterize the state of diversity in the legal profession today?

In a word: evolving. In 2009, the ABA conducted an extensive national assessment of the state of diversity in the legal profession, including hearings held around the United States—with practitioners, academics, corporate counsel—whose results were synthesized into a report, “Diversity in the Legal Profession: The Next Steps.” We found that, although our profession today is more diverse and inclusive, and has made significant advances, many obstacles to free and equal professional success remain. For example:

  • While women make up just over half of the U.S. population and half of the entering classes in law schools, they represent one third of the lawyer population, about 18 percent of law firm equity partners and 20 to 25 percent of the judiciary.
  • Racial and ethnic minorities make up approximately one third of the U.S. population, but they represent only 10 percent of the lawyer population, less than 16 percent of judges and 6 percent of equity partners.

These numbers do not nearly reflect the diverse range of talent in our profession. Our lack of diversity runs counter to the promise of fairness and equality that is our profession’s bedrock, depriving the community of a bench that reflects the community and of legal advice that is a product of diverse views.

VAULT: What are the principal challenges to increasing diversity at law firms?

First, through what are known as “pipeline programs,” we need to get more racial and ethnic minorities into law school. We must do all we can to encourage young people of all backgrounds that a career in the law can be fulfilling, and that we welcome them to the profession. Through educational and scholarship programs, we must make it easier for qualified people of diverse backgrounds to pursue legal careers.

Then, once people enter the profession, we must work on retention. An ABA report from the Commission on Women in the Profession, titled “Visible Invisibility: Women of Color in Law Firms,” revealed startling realities about the experiences of women of color, including anecdotal evidence that nearly half of women of color have been subjected to demeaning comments or other types of harassment while working at a private law firm (compared with only 2 percent of white men reporting the same experiences). A substantial number also report being passed over for desirable work assignments, being excluded from networking opportunities, and having received at least one unfair performance evaluation. These and other disparities allow us to better understand why women of color have a nearly 100 percent attrition rate from law firms at the end of eight years.

Another challenge facing law firms—especially those that have been addressing diversity issues for a while now—is to evolve from the traditional idea of diversity to understand and embrace inclusion. Diversity basically speaks to the numbers: proactively doing things to increase the numbers of diverse persons in the firm. While that is absolutely essential, it’s not enough. We now must focus on building inclusive work environments that demonstrate that we value diverse perspectives and understand how they benefit the organization overall.

VAULT: Has the current state of the economy further exacerbated these difficulties?

Yes. The ABA’s “The Next Steps” report found that the “recession is drying up monies for diversity initiatives and creating downsizing and cutbacks that may disproportionately and negatively affect lawyer diversity—thereby undoing the gains of past decades.”

The American Lawyer’s annual report on diversity confirmed the anecdotes that have been voiced throughout the legal community. Its 2010 Diversity Scorecard reported that for the first time in 10 years the proportion of lawyers of color has decreased, based on a survey of the country’s 200 largest firms. While big firms lost 6 percent of their attorneys between 2008 and 2009, they lost 9 percent of their minority lawyers. Some experts fear that this could be the start of a new downward trend, given a climate of slower law firm hiring, fewer African-American and Mexican-American law students, and law firm layoffs.

Next: areas in which we are seeing progress and what steps the ABA and others are taking to advance diversity.

- posted by vera

Filed Under: Law

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