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Legal Guardians Of Diversity

These organizations are improving diversity within the legal ranks, one sector at a time.

James Leipold, executive director of the National Association for Law Placement, notes that work needs to be done to keep women and minorties from defecting from law firms.

Hispanics and Blacks make up about 15.1 and 12.9 percent of the U.S. population, respectively, and 3.3 and 3.9 percent of the lawyer population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and the Law School Admission Council. On the other hand, Whites represent about 69.1 percent of the general population and 89.2 percent of the lawyer population. These statistics, some say, are indicative of the need for law schools and legal employers to use more aggressive and inclusive recruitment strategies. The following are among the organizations doing their part to help improve diversity in the law field. See how:

The National Association for Law Placement Minorities and women are severely underrepresented in senior associate and partner-level positions at the nation’s leading law firms. In 2008, minorities made up nearly 6 percent of partners at the country’s major firms, while women accounted for about 19 percent, according to a recent NALP report.

In addition, some are concerned that women and minorities may be negatively impacted by the wave of recent law firm layoffs in the midst of a struggling economy.

“In the years ahead, we’ll be looking to see how the economy has impacted these two groups,” says James Leipold, executive director of NALP, one of the country’s leading providers of legal education and employment research.

As such, NALP has been committed to helping schools and employers craft better recruitment and retention policies, and enhance career advisement and professional development techniques. Leipold adds that the organization’s ongoing research studies — which include examinations of career trends and the changing demographic of the legal profession — represent NALP’s long-standing pledge to ensure that all newly minted law school graduates have an equal opportunity in landing a job.

“One of our core purposes has always been to ensure equal access to legal careers for all law school graduates in a non-biased and nonprejudiced way,” says Leipold, who notes that the organization will host its fourth annual legal profession diversity conference later this year in Chicago.

Many are encouraged by recent reports that suggest minorities compose about 23 percent of the law school student body and at least 24 percent of the summer associate class at the country’s law firms.

However, Leipold cautions that work needs to be done to keep women and minorities from defecting from law firms — a problem plaguing the industry even before the economic downturn. “A complicated set of factors result in women and minorities leaving law firms jobs faster than their male and non-minority peers,” he says.

Just The Beginning Foundation

Of the 1,286 judges currently on the federal bench, 110 are Black, 69 are Hispanic and 10 are Asian or Pacific Islander. However, officials say these numbers do not reflect the country’s increasingly diverse population. In efforts to foster more interest in the legal profession and ultimately produce a more diverse federal bench, Just The Beginning Foundation strives to educate underrepresented students about the advantages of pursuing a career in law.

William A. Blakey, chairman of the Council on Legal Education Opportunity’s Governing Council

“The legal profession is one of the professions in which the number of diverse people has been substantially lower than what the population reflects, and we want to help support (students’) continuing advancement,” says executive director Paula Lucas.

In addition to various pipeline programs aimed at middle-school and high-school students — which includes a Summer Legal Institute and Middle School Law Camp — the Chicago-based organization boasts its multiracial stronghold of lawyers, judges and other community leaders who are committed to cultivating student interest in the judicial system. For example, as a component of an expanded middleschool pilot program, a group of Maryland students recently enjoyed a tour of the Supreme Court and a private session with Chief Justice John Roberts who discussed the historic swearing-in ceremony of President Barack Obama.

JTBF also assists college students with law school preparation and helps guide law students who are competing for judicial internships and clerkships. Officials say the foundation’s wide array of programs provide students with practical basic legal skills such as negotiation, mediation and writing techniques.

Lucas also notes that the organization makes every effort to dispel many of the myths students have about legal careers and to educate them about the financial obstacles and resources related to law school.

“A lot of them don’t realize the talents and skills they have, and what we try to say is, ‘hey, when you get out of law school (with debt) you’ll be able to catch up because it’s an investment in you,’” she adds.

Council on Legal Education Opportunity

A 2006 Law School Admission Council report suggests that more work still needs to be done to ensure more minorities take the required Law School Admission Test. Between 1999 and 2005, the percentage of LSAT takers who were Hispanic, excluding Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans, and Asian rose slightly from about 4 to 5 percent and around 7 to 8 percent, respectively. However, the total number of test takers who were Black decreased from roughly 11 to 10 percent.

CLEO officials say they are consistently working to ensure that more minority students take and excel on the LSAT and in the law school application process. With targeted programs for minority, lowincome and disadvantaged students — including its signature Thurgood Marshall College Scholars Program — CLEO has propelled more than 7,500 students onto the pathways of law school and legal careers. Over the past four decades, CLEO’s services have included academic counseling, financial assistance, bar prep orientation, summer enrichment and weekend seminars and workshops. All are dedicated to the mission of diversifying the legal profession, says William A. Blakey, chairman of CLEO’s Governing Council.

“Initially, CLEO began with African-Americans but has since expanded to include other minority groups who have traditionally been excluded from the study of law,” says Blakey, who adds that the organization also offers specialized training for undergraduate students who are interested in attending law school.

While noting that the organization is currently celebrating its 40th anniversary, Blakey says: “It’s about helping (students) hone their skills and getting students ready to transfer, translate and transform their skills. CLEO has always been committed to adding to diversity in the legal profession and in legal education.”

Minority Corporate Counsel Association

According to an online MCCA report: “The number of people of color who lead Fortune 500 law departments” almost tripled from 11 to 30 percent between 1999 and 2002.

William A. Blakey, chairman of the Council on Legal Education Opportunity’s Governing Council

And as a leader in the effort to continue diversifying corporate lawyer ranks, the MCCA regularly outlines multiple strategies that companies and law departments have successfully utilized to advance their diversity goals. Officials hope these studies will guide other companies that are interested in doing the same.

“We have really well-done research that always contains practical recommendations for employers,” says Veta T. Richardson, MCCA’s executive director who notes that the organization’s heavily attended annual conference incorporates issues of diversity, management and professional development. “MCCA has really emerged as a knowledge leader and knowledge center on the topic of diversity in the legal profession. We are attempting to adopt a grassroots approach to bringing people together and our approach has been tremendously successful.”

It is important to note that recent MCCA reports suggest that despite the beleaguered economy, many corporate legal departments have not abandoned their diversity initiatives. Rather, they are “increasingly relying on more innovative, low-cost measures to promote their diversity practices,” and others are strengthening their development and retention programs, according to an MCCA report.

MCCA recently launched the “KAN-Do! Mentoring Program.” This online-based mentoring tool, which couples law students and lawyers with fellow lawyers who act as mentors, is used to enhance dialogue. Officials say mentoring opportunities play a critical role in job success and attrition.

Richardson also adds that diversity is increasingly becoming a primary component of a shifting social and professional climate. For example, many MCCA members and other legal professionals have been actively involved in supporting an outside effort referred to as “Call to Action,” which was founded in 2004 by Roderick A. Palmore, general counsel, executive vice president and chief corporate and risk management officer of General Mills, Inc. As part of this initiative, participants vow to use their professional positions to advocate for more diversity within their legal departments.

“General counsels who sign it also pledge that the diversity of a law firm will influence their business decisions,” says Richardson. “I think it indicates a level of seriousness that had not existed previously.”

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