Legal profession lagging in diversity

October 24, 2010
| By Pete Daly |
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Lawyers can be perceived as ¡°the gatekeepers to justice,¡± in the words of Rodney D. Martin, a partner at Warner Norcross & Judd in Grand Rapids. When those gatekeepers aren¡¯t as diverse a group as other professionals, it could be perceived as a problem to many Americans.

The fact is, ¡°the legal profession lags behind other professions in diversity,¡± said Martin, who was appointed the firm¡¯s official diversity partner in 2006.

Twenty-five percent of physicians are persons of color, he said. Among CPAs, it is 21 percent. Among lawyers: about 10 percent.

According to the report ¡°The Education Pipeline to the Legal Profession ¡ª a Primer and Guide,¡± presented to the American Bar Association in the spring by law professor Sarah Redfield, the legal profession ¡°is hugely out of sync with the population now and will continue to grow further apart.¡± By 2042, a majority of the U.S. population is predicted to be made up of minorities ¡°and the white population (non-Hispanic) to be at 46 percent by 2050,¡± she wrote.

Data compiled from 2000 to 2009 by the Law School Admissions Council reveals that 31 percent of the 571,300 Caucasian applicants to law school were turned down by every school to which they applied. For African-Americans, the corresponding number of applicants was 95,870, and 60 percent were turned down by every law school. For Hispanic applicants, the rejection rate was 45 percent.

Martin said the problem is ¡°not racism in the admission process. ¡­ There¡¯s a bigger issue involved.¡±

That issue is education, he said, especially the ability to read well.

¡°To put it bluntly, students who cannot read well will not do well in the education system and will not be likely candidates for law school,¡± wrote Professor Redfield.

¡°The bar cannot increase its diversity if the diversity of law school admissions does not change,¡± wrote Redfield. ¡°Law school admissions for black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaskan Natives are flat or decreasing. While black admissions have shown an actual decrease, the larger gap will concern Hispanic students, whose admission numbers are now limited and whose growth in the population is increasing significantly.

¡°These trends are chronic and long©\term ¡ª black enrollment peaked in the 1995©\96 academic year and has fallen short of that high©\water mark in every one of the past twelve years; and Hispanic enrollment has remained flat over that period despite the growth of Hispanics in the population as a whole.¡±

Redfield says the comparatively lower scores on the Law School Admission test and ¡°comparatively fewer students with GPAs above the average (of students admitted to law school) will continue this trend.¡±

Redfield then cites research, much of it funded by the Gates Foundation, which highlights the ¡°new 3Rs¡±: relationships, relevance and rigor. The New 3Rs, she says, are less available in schools with a high minority/low income enrollment.

The New 3Rs are defined as:

Relationships: All students need adult mentors who know them, look out for them, and push them to achieve.

Relevance: Courses and projects must spark student interest and relate clearly to their lives.

Rigor: All students need the chance to succeed at challenging classes, such as algebra, writing and chemistry.

¡°I think the good news is that the state bar and the Grand Rapids bar both recognize the issue (of education for minority students), and we¡¯ve got several leading firms¡± active in a number of ways, said Martin.

Warner Norcross has long been active in the law school pipeline on behalf of minority students. This year, 16 Warner Norcross attorneys will be volunteering as coaches for teams from Grand Rapids City High School competing in the statewide mock trial program for high school students.

Warner Norcross also is involved in the clerkship program open to minority law students after their first year.

The firm is one of many in the area that helps support scholarship programs for minority individuals enrolled in law school, paralegal training and even prep courses for taking the Law School Admission Test. The cost for LSAT preparation courses generally runs about $1,500, according to Martin.

Warner Norcross has been recognized for its leadership in attempts to increase diversity in the legal profession. Last year, the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce presented the firm with its Diversity Visionary Award. This year, it was designated a "Full Diversity Partner" by Partners for A Racism Free Community and was recognized in the August issue of Corp! Magazine as a "Diversity Focused Company."

Partners for A Racism Free Community is a local movement of individuals and organizations based at the Grand Rapids Area Center for Ecumenism. GRACE Executive Director Lisa Mitchell said Warner Norcross is one of several organizations that volunteered to serve as part of a pilot project in the launch of PRFC, and is thus far the only organization that has achieved the level of Full Diversity Partner. To do that, Warner Norcross had to prove to a visiting GRACE team over a period of time that it meets six rigorous standards supporting PRFC.

¡°They really had a lot of things already in place at their law firm,¡± said Mitchell.

Martin was one of the leaders of the Diversity Roundtable sponsored by the Grand Rapids Bar Association in March.

Most recently, Warner Norcross was among the first firms to sign the new Diversity & Inclusion Pledge introduced by the State Bar of Michigan in a special event in Grand Rapids in late September.

Martin has been invited to speak to the Diversity Committee of the local chapter of the Association of Human Resource Managers, and was recently asked to speak on the same topic to the entire chapter at an upcoming meeting.

He and his team are working on the firm¡¯s fifth Diversity and Inclusion Annual Report, a formal progress report to the firm, its attorneys and staff, and its clients. Martin said some of the firm¡¯s clients, such as Whirlpool, Spartan Motors, Padnos and others, have stressed ¡°the importance to their companies in engaging diverse law firms.¡±

How does Warner Norcross stack up in its own hiring of minority attorneys?

Over the last five years, said Martin, 13 percent of those hired have been persons of color.

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