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Legal community struggles to increase diversity

Leaders want more aggressive recruiting

By: Bennett Loudon//February 24, 2017

Legal community struggles to increase diversity

Leaders want more aggressive recruiting

By: Bennett Loudon//February 24, 2017

Imagine being arrested and dragged into court, surrounded by lawyers, judges and staff who all speak a different language, conducting all the proceedings involved in your case, while you stand confused and hopeless.

Duwaine Bascoe
Duwaine Bascoe

Duwaine T. Bascoe, president of the Rochester Black Bar Association, said that’s what it can be like for people of color in Rochester-area courts.

But, instead of a language barrier, the minority community confronts a cultural void because of a lack of diversity in the court system.

“It’s a struggle that is being addressed, but it is a struggle,” said Bascoe, an associate at Woods Oviatt Gillman LLP.

Real-time observations

Van Henri White, a civil rights attorney and president of the Rochester School Board, said: “There’s an obvious lack of diversity, but that doesn’t mean there’s a lack of commitment by lawyers of all races to do what is just and what is fair and what is right.”

But it’s difficult to maintain the confidence of the minority community under the current circumstances, he said.

“It affects the real-time observations that people make, particularly people of color, since, when it comes to criminal justice, we are disproportionately participating in that system,” White said.

While he acknowledged the lack of diversity, Bascoe said the local legal community has been open to confronting it.

“The struggle has come in as to trying to understand and address the issue of how to make the want of the community a reality,” he said.

Bascoe is chairman of the Monroe County Bar Association’s Diversity Clerkship program, in which he participated as a student at University at Buffalo Law School. The program funnels first-year law students into summer jobs at law firms and other public sector work to give them experience.

The hope is that they will return to those firms the next summer and eventually go to work as attorneys in those offices, creating a pipeline to increase the diversity of the local legal community.

“That initiative is going into its 14th year. It’s a struggle in keeping the core members of the firms involved,” Bascoe said.

A core group of about a half dozen law firms has remained over the years, Bascoe said, but it has been difficult to grow the program and keep the minority lawyers in the community long term.

Part of the problem is that minority lawyers are being drawn away by more lucrative opportunities in larger cities, he said.

“I understand that there are individuals that would like to go back to New York City if they’re from New York City, or go down to Washington, D.C., or some kind of big market,” he said.

“But there are those that would really like an opportunity to make their mark here and they’re not granted that opportunity. Or, if they are granted that opportunity, after practicing for a couple years, they don’t see an avenue, a viable avenue to progress to partnership, and then they decide to leave,” Bascoe said.

Will they come to Rochester?

Government officials must create an environment that brings hope to young lawyers of color to start a career here. One way to do that is to create and support role models so young minority attorneys can see evidence that they can be successful here, White said.

Bascoe said law firms and institutions recruiting attorneys should expand their efforts and do a better job of promoting the community as an attractive place to work.

The lack of diversity is not the result of a limited pool of candidates, Bascoe said. The demand for lawyers dropped significantly after the financial crisis of 2008 and that led to a significant decline in law school enrollment.

“The market hasn’t fully recovered back to pre-2008 levels, but it’s darn close to it,” Bascoe said.

“Marketplace-wise, the jobs are starting to come back,” he said.

According to American Bar Association data, the average minority enrollment at law schools last year was about 29 percent. The rate was about 17 percent at the State University at Buffalo School of Law, and 19.9 percent at Syracuse University College of Law.

At SU, about 5 percent of students were black or African-American. At Buffalo the rate was about 4.4 percent.

Van White
Van White

“They’re out there. I’m not in that market, but it would appear to me that, if we got aggressive, you could at least catch the attention of attorneys of color,” White said.

“I believe that, while law school classes may be smaller, based on my anecdotal experience, the students of color are out there. Will they come to Rochester? I don’t know for sure, but we’ll never know unless we go ask,” he said.

Client pressure

And another factor that might play a role in addressing the diversity issue is the expectations of clients, especially large corporations that are making choices about where to get legal services based partly on the diversity of candidate law firms.

“Disney has done it. Google has done it. When you see more and more companies go that way it will force the hand of the legal profession to go that way because those are our clients,” Bascoe said.

The lack of diversity is a problem that must be addressed to a large extent from the bottom up, White said. Without a diverse group of lawyers there will be fewer judicial candidates of color. And with fewer elected minority judges, there will be fewer to choose from when the governor is searching for potential candidates to fill appointed seats, such as the Appellate Division, or the Court of Appeals.

“Long term it impacts the ability, or the capacity, of the system to diversify at the higher level,” White said.

But White said the lack of diversity as it now exists does not necessarily make the system unfair. He said most of his colleagues in the legal community, regardless of their race or ethnicity, “are honorable, committed public servants.”

“The color of their skin does not give me the experience that one does not have a real shot at getting justice,” he said.

But, White said, a young person of color without his experience who comes into contact with the justice system and sees nobody who reflects their community, “you begin to wonder: ‘Is this a system that can understand my dilemma.’

“We should be concerned about that, not only in the assistant district attorneys we hire and the public defenders that we hire, but also in the judges that we appoint.”

But White also said there are some things attorneys of color can do to improve their prospects.

“Practice diversity in your networking. Don’t just hang out with black people, black lawyers. Get to know white lawyers,” White said.

“By that kind of networking and associations you can ensure that people receive the services of competent, capable committed attorneys, but also, incidentally, you might also have an opportunity to serve in a different system,” he said.

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