in the Profession
At the September 15th MSBA Assembly, the MSBA Task Force on Diversity in the Profession presented a report on diversity in legal employment. This report is the culmination of a year of research and it affords the perfect opportunity to reflect on our own philosophies regarding diversity. Experience teaches that the more varied the experiences of an individual attorney, the more competent he or she is to tackle the wide range of issues we all face. This philosophy applies to firms as well. The more varied and wide-ranging the experiences of the attorneys and staff at any given firm, the better equipped that firm is for dealing with complex and diverse legal issues.
With law schools graduating so many competent young lawyers, it is easy to be overwhelmed by applicants and, consequently, focus only on traditional skills and qualifications such as GPA and class rank. However, if we take the time to examine each applicant’s personal history and makeup, we may find that this extra research pays dividends. Diverse law firms often have connections to communities that traditionally have been difficult for firms to reach. Attorneys from diverse backgrounds may possess distinct skills, like the ability to speak a second language and knowledge of other cultures, which help to access minority communities. As Minnesota’s immigrant population swells, the need for legal services in those communities will also grow. Consequently, diversity in law firms will continue to increase in value.
Cultivating diversity is not a burden to a law firm, but rather a blessing. Of course, creating and maintaining such diversity requires more than simply modifying hiring practices. A firm should be sensitive to the unique issues faced by minority workers. The MSBA Task Force reported that three-fourths of legal employers make special efforts to recruit attorneys of color. Thus, it is safe to assume that Minnesota law firms are interested in creating diverse environments. However, the Task Force report noted that “disparate opinions of the severity of the problem of bias exist between attorneys in diverse communities and those in the majority.” Firms must address these issues if they are to build and maintain a level of diversity sufficient to reap the benefits of a diverse law firm.
The Task Force found that most women attorneys and attorneys of color do not believe that they are able to advance as far as white men in the legal profession. Of the attorneys who identified themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender (GLBT), 70 percent told the Task Force that they have hidden their sexual identity or identified themselves as heterosexual out of concern that revealing their sexual identity would adversely affect their careers. Additionally, many respondents from religious minorities reported perceiving that symbols of their faith are seen as inappropriate in the workplace where Christian symbols are accepted. Even in firms that traditionally hire minorities, the Task Force found that many minority attorneys feel that they are unfairly singled out to attend public relations events, which do not accrue towards billable hours, or to appear in marketing materials as the firms strive to appear diverse.
Evidence exists that the concerns expressed by minorities and women are valid. While many firms are doing a good job of recruiting minority and women attorneys, few of those attorneys have broken into the upper echelon of those same firms. The Task Force found that 30 percent of the lawyers working in firms that responded to the study are women, but women comprise only 18 percent of equity partners or shareholders in those firms. In settings other than law firms, however, women were found to hold 40 percent of all supervisory positions. Minority and women attorneys were also found to be underrepresented on vital law firm committees, such as those that set salaries and make partnership decisions.
Unlike their minority counterparts, most majority attorneys interviewed do not recognize bias as a major or moderate problem, and most rate themselves as more sensitive than other attorneys to the issues faced by attorneys from diverse communities. Many, however, acknowledge being less sensitive towards concerns of members of the GLBT community and members of religious minorities. The dichotomy between these perceptions reveals that much work is left to be done in creating diversity in Minnesota’s firms.
So what is the answer to this enigma? Firms are reviewing and implementing the SAGE Best Practices program, produced by the MSBA, which addresses the concerns of women in the legal profession. Many firms have learned to be wary of falling into the trap of overusing minorities for PR purposes, and most firms are working hard to create a comfortable atmosphere for minorities by addressing complaints of harassment or discrimination quickly and effectively. And, put to rest the idea that law schools and employers lower standards for students and attorneys of color.
The goal of law firms in Minnesota is to create an environment in which all attorneys and staff can flourish. Diversity is important, because it allows groups that have traditionally been marginalized the same opportunities as everyone else. However, diversity is also important because a diverse law firm is a strong law firm. A firm that includes people as diverse as its clients, if not more so, is well-positioned to address all questions, issues and experiences encountered by clients.
Many thanks are due the Task Force, chaired by Leslie Altman, of Littler Mendelson, and Michael Tracy, of Kelly Law Registry, who provided a tremendous service to the MSBA by producing this report. The Assembly voted to appoint a body to develop specific recommendations for action based on the results of the report. These recommendations should be helpful to the entire legal community as we endeavor to increase our level of diversity.
PATRICK J. KELLY is president of the Minnesota State Bar Association. A founding partner in the St. Paul law firm Kelly & Fawcett. P.A., he practices in areas of municipal law, labor and employment law and litigation, real estate, and administrative hearings.