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Report highlights law firms’ diversity struggles

By: Daily Record Staff , VELVET SPICER//August 24, 2017

Report highlights law firms’ diversity struggles

By: Daily Record Staff , VELVET SPICER//August 24, 2017

The legal profession has stagnated in its diversity efforts, and black attorneys are the least represented at every rung of a private practice’s hierarchy.

A new report from Law360 shows that at every level of a typical law firm, minority attorney representation grew by less than 1 percentage point from a year ago. And while minorities account for 30 percent of law students, just 15 percent of lawyers at surveyed law firms identify as an attorney of color.

Kevin Ryan
Kevin Ryan

“It’s a huge problem for the legal profession in general,” said Monroe County Bar Association Executive Director Kevin Ryan. “The legal profession has been slow in getting more diversity in the profession in general. That report really illustrates that.”

Law360, a legal news service operated by a subsidiary of LexisNexis, surveyed more than 300 U.S. firms for its 2017 Law Firm Diversity Snapshot. Data from the report shows that for roughly 31,000 equity partners surveyed, just over 500 identified as black.

Put another way, for every black equity partner, there are about 53 white equity partners, and for every black attorney, there are 28 white attorneys. In Rochester, minorities are equally underrepresented, Ryan said.

“Even firms that make a little bit of an effort to increase the diversity at the associate level have not done a very good job of figuring out how to retain people,” Ryan said of diversity at local law firms. “It seems that we can get people into Rochester, but it’s a challenge to keep them because frequently they are the lone minority in a firm. They feel like outsiders.”

The report notes that in some cases a lack of minority equity partners is due in part to attorneys sidestepping that track early on. Some have headed into government jobs or in-house counsel roles.

But Rochester is unique in that sense, said Rochester Black Bar Association President Duwaine Bascoe.

Duwaine Bascoe
Duwaine Bascoe

“We have minorities that are in government already,” Bascoe said. “And there are not too many minorities that are operating in the law firm environment to begin with.”

In his experience, Bascoe said, rather than move to in-house positions, minorities in Rochester tend to join smaller firms where moving up the hierarchy may be quicker.

“So you’ll have certain individuals that will leave larger law firms to join startup firms,” Bascoe said.

Law firms are not doing enough to attract and retain minority talent, Ryan and Bascoe acknowledged, although some firms have developed diversity programs and scholarships to attract minorities.

MCBA, RBBA and the Greater Rochester Association for Women Attorneys co-sponsor a Diversity Clerkship Program. The program brings diverse law students who have completed their first year to Rochester to work as summer law clerks. Many of them return for a second year with a local firm, and many come back upon completion of law school, Ryan said.

“While many return to begin their careers in Rochester, fewer stay after their first few years of practice,” Ryan said. “So the issue is one of retention of those we bring here. Too many of them leave.”

Local law firms who have their own diversity programs have the same experience: initial success in recruitment, but long-term difficulty in retaining those talented attorneys, he said. The group is working on finding the root cause for that.

“I believe the focus in Rochester has been over the last 10 to 15 years, at least as far as the diversity program is concerned, concentrated on short-term recruitment,” Bascoe offered. “But I think it has to be twofold. One, the recruitment has to start earlier, making Rochester more attractive for individuals to come back to. And the second part of it is dealing with retention.”

Law firms must develop a more inclusive environment, Bascoe said.

“Because the person has to feel as though their work matters, that avenues are available to them to achieve success,” he added.

A more diverse law firm is crucial for long-term success, Bascoe said, and many clients are demanding it.

“The law is a service-oriented profession and when it comes down to it, we are at the will of our clients,” he explained. “If you take a look at the trend globally, in America, in New York and in Rochester, you have a slew of new opportunities that are coming up for businesses that value diversity. And they want whomever services them to reflect their viewpoints and their goals.”

In addition, Ryan said, the legal profession appears white to minority populations.

“So, the more diversity you can bring into the legal profession, I think the greater the profession’s ability will be to reach out to other populations,” Ryan said. “And some of it’s perception, some of it’s cultural, some of it’s that there’s a lack of comfort in seeking out legal help that doesn’t look like you.”

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