Detroit Mayor Praises Local Bars Diversity Plan

June 5, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer on Monday lauded the local bar association’s efforts to increase ethnic diversity in the Grand Rapids legal community.

Archer spoke to members of the Grand Rapids Bar Association gathered at the Peninsular Club on the importance of diversifying the legal profession and the role the business community plays in the process.

Archer said the challenge for lawyers is to admit that barriers still remain for minorities. He urged attorneys to be leaders in bringing diversity to the workplace.

“When the corridors of our leading law firms begin to look like the streets of our business districts, when minority partners are no longer a rarity, then we will know that diversity has taken hold within the collective culture of our profession,” he said.

“At that point, the idea of a marketplace that sees only the talent, skills and performance, not color, race or ethnicity, will begin to take shape.”

Archer noted that the attrition rate in law firms is highest among minority women and that minority lawyers tend to leave long before being considered for partner.

He said many U.S. companies understand that their customer base is becoming more and more diverse, and the corporate community is paving the way.

Members of the corporate community have already said what they want, and they’re going to get what they want, Archer said. They want their workforce, as well as their advertising, to reflect the populations to whom they’re selling their products.

“If they tell you your firm is not diverse enough and if you don’t color it up some, they’re writing the checks and making the decisions.”

If corporations are committed to workforce diversity, minorities must have access to higher education in order to qualify for positions, he added.

To that end, Archer said he was disappointed by Eastern District Judge Bernard Friedman’s March 27 ruling that use of race in law school admissions policies at the University of Michigan was unconstitutional.

Friedman’s ruling marked a departure from other courts’ interpretation of the landmark 1978 Bakke decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court allowed race to be considered in admissions, but outlawed racial quotas.

However, Archer said he was encouraged by the ruling of U.S. District Judge Patrick Duggan, who in an earlier case affirmed the use of race in U of M’s undergraduate admissions policy.

Both rulings have been challenged and are scheduled to go before the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.

“I believe it is imperative that the principals of inclusion and diversity inherent in other graduate admissions polices be upheld in admissions to law school and all other American institutions of higher education,” Archer said.

“Laws have been out there and laws have been changed. They’ve changed because they need to reflect society and who we are and what we are. As lawyers we’ve got to stand up for those who continue to face unfair treatment in what should be open markets of education and commerce.”

“Grand Rapids, you’re a real leader in terms of change,” Archer said. “Just stay focused. Don’t get tired. Just remember: To whom much is given, much is required”

The GRBA Board of Trustees adopted a diversity strategic plan in October of 1999, outlining specific objectives and strategies to increase the number of minority attorneys and legal personnel.

     Three years ago, the GRBA commissioned Grand Valley State University researchers to survey 239 of the bar’s member organizations in an effort to understand the dimension and nature of diversity issues in the legal profession.

The survey compiled information on minority hiring and retention practices and existing diversity related programs among local legal employers, including law firms, courts and corporate legal departments.

The report underscored the need for GRBA members to be more creative in recruiting hiring, retaining and promoting women and minority attorneys and non-attorney personnel, according to the bar.

“First, we found empirical support for the anecdotal belief that local firms and corporate legal departments have a difficult time attracting and retaining minority lawyers,” said GRBA Diversity Committee Chair Patrick Miles, Jr., a partner at Varnum, Riddering, Schmidt & Howlett. 

Since women now comprise nearly 50 percent of law school students, recruiting women attorneys has become less of a problem. However, women attorneys have more difficulty in client development than do their white male counterparts and tend to leave their jobs or the profession in higher percentages, he pointed out.

“Finally, we found that staff positions in law firms are not easily accessed by potential minority legal secretaries, receptionists, computer specialists, file clerks or messengers,” Miles said.

The Diversity Strategic Plan sets the strategies and target dates for achieving four main goals:

  • Increase representation of people of color among GRBA members
  • Assist women attorneys to succeed and advance in their careers
  • Increase the representation of people of color as non-attorney personnel in GRBA member firms and organizations
  • Institutionalize the Diversity Strategic Plan

GRBA Executive Director Dierdre Toeller-Novak said the local bar has had a diversity committee since 1989 and is probably ahead of any other bar in Michigan in that respect.

“I think we are the only bar in Michigan with a strategic plan. We really have led the state in diversity issues,” she remarked. “Every year at the new president’s conference they have asked for our materials and updates so our programs can be duplicated.”

She gave as examples the bar’s Clerkship Committee, which brings in minority law clerks to practice in Grand Rapids and tries to interest them in staying here, and the bar’s Jury Representation Committee, which works to increase the number of minorities on juries.

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