Affirmative Action, In-House Counsel, Job Searches, Minority Issues

House Rules: Claiming Minority Status for a Leg Up

The Dewey debacle is unfolding in real time on this and other sites. People’s lives are being shattered as a firm gets shuttered. It is not the first, and certainly not the last, time that a major law firm with thousands of employees will disappear into so much ether. I look back on my OCI days, and can rattle off several former NYC firms that have either merged into unrecognizability, or disappeared like Dewey is in the process of doing.

Likewise, not far from where I now sit, is the shell of Eastman Kodak — a company that built a large part of this town, and will likely become a shameful case study in the annals of business school textbooks. And yesterday, news went out that my own company is beginning another round of VRIF severance offers.

Regardless of whether you are sitting comfortably in-house, collecting pay from Biglaw, or wondering how in Hell you’re going to find a summer job, news like that mentioned above is disquieting. The main reason is that there isn’t anything that can be done. One day you’re employed, and then, well, you may not be. And there is really no place for schadenfreude in a “there but for the grace of God” economy. Careers can be dissolved as quickly as Dewey.

So, when you are forced to enter an applicant pool of thousands of other attorneys looking for a break in a seemingly unsolvable code of hiring, what can you do to set yourself apart? One possible strategy that has become a hot button issue in the past days is to claim minority status on your application. The obvious dilemma that you face as applicant number two thousand twenty-eight is whether to check such status if your lineage may or may not support the claim….

According to one report, Elizabeth Warren may be 1/32 Cherokee. Does that qualify her as a minority? Should it disqualify her from the Senate if she claimed that lineage to obtain past employment, and yet, didn’t claim it to obtain her most recent position? According to the Native American Rights Fund website, “an Indian is a person who is of some degree Indian blood and is recognized as an Indian by a tribe/village and/or the United States. There exists no universally accepted rule for establishing a person’s identity as an Indian.”

It seems that from that definition, Warren may be on solid ground when claiming her lineage, especially if the aforementioned report backs up her claim. But, while claiming the lineage may be acceptable, should she?

This brings us to the narcissist’s favorite topic — me. Much like Ms. Warren alleges, I was repeatedly told of paternal ancestors who were Indian. I also have traits of Indian blood (i.e., [Native American stereotypes redacted]). There are stories in my family of the Indian tribal belt that was passed down through generations, a belt I have held in my own hands. There is also allegedly a book with some important information regarding this heritage somewhere in the possession of one of my relatives. But, taken together, the story seems tenuous at best, and until I have the recognized blood work performed, I will not know for sure.

For that reason alone, I have never claimed such status on any legal document. It just feels wrong; I don’t know how else to explain my choice. Of course, were the stories proved to be true, I would accept my heritage just as proudly as I identify with my Irish or French Canadian bloodlines. I enjoy the fact that my children know for the most part where they’re “from,” and I would not hesitate to pass along any concrete information that I glean about our background. But should you check a box in order to get an interview?

I can’t answer that for you, obviously, but think about the consequences of that seemingly innocuous checkmark. You could be taking the place of someone who identifies as minority far more than someone who has 1/32 of minority blood. Also, your work product better be up to the standards of the place to which you are applying, or you won’t last long, minority or not. One thing that no one can take from you in this life is your integrity. Ms. Warren has to sleep at night knowing what she did, and her reason(s) for doing so. When looking her 1/32-Cherokee-self in the mirror each morning, she ought to be asking herself difficult questions — such as if it were important enough to claim in the 80s, why it is not such an issue for her now.

It hardly seems fair to me that my half-Portuguese friend may not self-identify as Hispanic, when folks who descended from the country directly to the East can. Some bureaucratic definition keeps her from utilizing a valid strategy to obtain potential employment advantages. Some of you may give this column a quick read and knee jerk that I am simply bloviating for race-baiting page hits. But for those of you that know me, know that this is a serious topic that requires serious consideration in these days of dissolving Biglaw firms and a legal hiring market that doesn’t seem to be any better than when I came in-house several years ago.

For those of you in the hunt, I wish you the best. I do that because I know how it feels, and in these times, I could very well be in that position once again. There but for the grace of God.

After two federal clerkships and several years as a litigator in law firms, David Mowry is happily ensconced as an in-house lawyer at a major technology company. He specializes in commercial leasing transactions, only sometimes misses litigation, and never regrets leaving firm life. You can reach him by email at

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