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ABA Conference the Stage for Affirmative Action Debate

Is the dearth of minority lawyers at elite law firms a result of racism or of faulty affirmative action programs? In a debate yesterday, David B. Wilkins, a Harvard University law professor, and Richard H. Sander, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, sought to address the reasons for Black underrepresentation in elite law firms. In 2005, non-White attorneys made up only 4.6 percent of partners at the nation’s largest law firms, according to the National Association for Law Placement.

Nearly 150 people came out for the debate, which was part of the American Bar Association’s National Conference for the Minority Lawyer. Though the atmosphere remained cordial, the sensitivity of the issue garnered strong reaction from proponents on both sides of the topic.

Sander, a vocal opponent of affirmative action, said minority law students are dropping out in large numbers or graduating near the bottom of their class. The achievement gap between minority and White students is a result of admitting minority students into elite law schools they are not adequately prepared for. Subsequently, Sander suggested, Blacks and other minority law students are not passing the Bar at the same rate as their White counterparts.

“It doesn’t make sense to hire someone because of their pedigree,” Sander said. “It should be based on grades, on GPA, which shows to be the best determining factor of long term success.”

Wilkins firmly rejected the notion that a high GPA translates into someone becoming a good lawyer.

“I’m not saying grades are irrelevant,” he said. “I give grades, and though low grades, particularly among Blacks, are disturbing, I don’t believe it’s the only factor to determine what makes a promising lawyer.”

Though Sander and Wilkins disagreed on the importance of grades, both acknowledged that the hiring process in major law firms is complex. Wilkins said the process does not rely solely on the GPA of the prospective employee, but that other subjective perceptions play a role, including conscious and unconscious racial ideologies. Sander, however, said the low numbers of minorities being hired by major law firms is directly related to their credentials.

Martin P. Greene, a partner at Chicago-based law firm Greene and Letts, who agreed with Wilkins, addressed Sander’s comments about the importance of a high GPA.

“I believe your study places too much emphasis on grades and does not take into consideration the role that racial discrimination plays in law school graduates’ entry into law firms,” Greene said.

Sander countered that though he does not believe racial discrimination is irrelevant, he does believe the lack of credentials and lower grades plays a more important role in the selection process of minority candidates.

“There is no evidence that suggests discrimination is the problem as a whole, but the practicing of [racial] preferences isn’t effective either,” he said.

J. Cunyon Gordon, the conference’s featured speaker, said her experience in the hiring process at a major law firm shows the different perceptions of minority and White candidates.

“The biggest argument I made for minority applicants was not to look at the ending GPA but their improvement from their first year,” she said. “That is what shows their dedication and promise as a lawyer, not an ending average grade.”

Wilkins repeatedly argued that an objective criterion, like GPA, is less important than subjective opinions and ideologies.

“It’s naïve to assume that credentials are the only factor when hiring someone. Discrimination, in-group bias and favoritism toward Whites over Blacks, which Blacks show too, plays a very prominent role,” he said. “Minorities often have to contend with the intellectual inferiority and other stereotypes during the hiring process.”

While acknowledging racism still exists, Sander said race becomes secondary when law firms seek to hire the best possible candidate.

“I do believe law firms are committed to diversity,” he said. “But grades and performance really do matter.”

– Ivelisse Sanchez

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