American Bar Association / ABA, Education / Schools, Minority Issues, Money, Racism

The Recession’s Impact on Diversity Initiatives

Diversity.jpgThe ABA is out with a new report that suggests the recession has negatively impacted diversity in the legal profession. The report also confirms reports we’ve heard about layoffs disproportionately affecting minority attorneys: The ABA Journal summarizes the findings:

“While law firms have increasingly come to recognize that diverse corporate clients and international markets often require lawyer diversity, 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,” states the report produced for the ABA Presidential Initiative Commission on Diversity.
The report, titled Diversity in the Legal Profession: The Next Steps (PDF), also urges law schools to take financial considerations into account in seeking greater diversity in admissions since diverse populations often are most affected by rising tuition costs and heavy debt loads.

That’s right, the ABA has some suggested solutions to this problem and — quite rightly — it starts with law schools.
Details from the report after the jump.

If you want more minority lawyers, you have to start in law school. The ABA recognizes that the cost of legal education is a huge disincentive for minorities who might want to become lawyers:

Law schools, states the report should educate applicants “about planning for the financial aspects of a legal education, including the risks associated with mortgaging their futures (i.e., acquiring excessive student loans) and that they are not guaranteed to secure employment with a $150,000-a-year salary.” But law schools also should explore ways to help bring down legal education costs through such innovations as more distance learning opportunities, rethinking the traditional three-year law school curriculum (four years for many night students) and even treating a law degree as a capital asset for tax purposes.

These measures could lead not only to more minority attorneys, but also more minority attorneys who are better prepared to take on the risk and uncertainty of pursuing a career in law. If minorities are have a better idea of what they are getting into before they attend law school, it could help with minority attorney retention.
In fact, the report suggests that law schools do a number of things that would help not only minority law students, but law students of every race, color, and gender. The report encourages schools to: hire faculty who are themselves more diverse in terms of practical legal experience, come up with degree programs that don’t take three years, focus more on practical skills, and stop being so obsessed with the U.S. News rankings.
Who doesn’t want this?
The report also contains a number of suggestions for law firms. Some of them seem helpful. For instance:

* Ensure that diversity programming investigates and addresses work cultures that inhibit inclusion and retention

Others sound like the kind of PC crap nobody should have time or patience for:

* Retain diversity experts as consultants or professional staff to achieve and maintain diversity and inclusion goals and accountability.

But one set of suggestions seems particularly useful:

* Using recent reports and research, develop persuasive arguments to present the tangible benefits of diversity to decision-makers (e.g., assignment partners, practice group leaders).
* Develop and disseminate rebuttals to inaccurate assertions that commitments to
diversity amount to impermissible reverse discrimination. Emphasize that holistic,
multidimensional diversity programming differs profoundly from–and thus avoids
the alleged harms of–polices aimed at superficial, one-dimensional demographic

This seems crucial to me. A diversity of partners can really help bring in a diversity of clients. And a diversity of backgrounds (be they racial, religious, economic, etc …) can lead to better quality of legal advice. These are concrete benefits to a diverse workplace.
But too often the discussion devolves into a stupid and useless discussion about quotas. And it’s not just from the critics of diversity. Supporters of diversity too often act like it’s a simple numbers games. For instance, a tipster told us about a conversation he had with an Am Law 100 hiring partner — a hiring partner who works at a firm that scores very highly on various diversity scorecards. The tipster was marketing a Chinese-American lateral to the firm, and the hiring partner said:

Well China isn’t really on our radar right now, so the fact that she is Chinese doesn’t really do much for us, does it?

It is stupid to reduce diversity initiatives into checking boxes with different colored crayons. And, for the record, if diversity programs were all about quotas, I’d hate them too.
Maybe it feels harder to argue that diversity is objectively better than homogeneous partnerships, but that’s the argument. And it’s an argument that even Kermit the freaking Frog understood when he said: “we need more dogs and cats and chickens and things!”
The economic self interest argument is going to be the only one that survives through a recession.
Recession Hurting Legal Profession’s Diversity Efforts, Report Says [ABA Journal]

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