Minority lawyers still relatively scarce in GR

September 2, 2011
| By Pete Daly |
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When it comes to minority representation among the ranks of Grand Rapids-area attorneys, there has been a lot of progress made in the past 40 years — but there are still unaccountable gaps at many firms, according to some who have been there.

“The firms are better now than when I came here in 1972. In ’72, there were no minorities in any of the firms. Period. Not a one,” said Judge Benjamin H. Logan II of the 61st District Court, an African-American and the president of the Floyd Skinner Bar Association in Grand Rapids.

Patrick A. Miles Jr., the first African-American partner at Varnum and today a partner at Dickinson Wright in Grand Rapids, said there is still “a dearth of people of color in the partnership ranks” at many law firms.

Before she had her own law firm, Raquel Salas said she subscribed to the theory that there weren’t enough minority lawyers available for recruitment here because they preferred to be in larger cities than Grand Rapids.

“Now that I have my own practice, I realize it’s not true. I get dozens of potential candidates that are minorities” when advertising an opening at her firm, Avanti Law Group, which has hired some of them.

“There are a lot of candidates out there. I just think the law firms must not be taking them into consideration, because they are here,” she added.

Logan has actually been involved with recruitment of minority students to law school since he was a senior student at the Ohio Northern University law school in the early 1970s. He is now a member of the school’s board of trustees.

“When law firms tell you, ‘We really want diversity, we’re looking for some minorities,’ some Asians, some African-Americans, whatever, and they say, ‘but we can’t find any,’ I say that’s hogwash,” said Logan.

“You have to go to where the individuals are,” said Logan. As an ONU law student, his dean asked him to help recruit minority students for the incoming class. Logan pointed out he wouldn’t be able to find those candidates in the small town of Ada, Ohio, where the university is located. Instead, he and another student traveled to some historically black universities, including Howard University, and persuaded several to enroll at the ONU law school.

Is it true that new, young black attorneys would rather be in Chicago than Grand Rapids?

“There is some truth to that and also some non-truth,” said Logan.

He conceded that some young minority attorneys come to Grand Rapids but “don’t get immersed in the community and so, consequently, they lose interest (and leave).”

He said he tends to blame both the firm that hired the young attorney — and also the lawyer. The firm should make an effort to introduce the minority attorney to the community, such as an African-American church or “some cultural things that may interest them.” But the individual has to take the initiative, too, he said.

“If you’re a new person in town, you can’t just stay in your apartment or house and hope that something happens. It doesn’t work that way.”

On the firm’s part, Logan said, it either expects a minority person to “flip their culture and become part of the majority, or they have to reach out and help that person fit where they feel comfortable.”

Miles, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District seat last year, has an impressive track record in efforts to add more diversity to the legal profession in West Michigan. He has been involved with that as a member of the Grand Rapids Bar for more than 15 years, including four years as chair of the bar’s diversity committee, prior to becoming a trustee of the bar association and later its president.

Miles said there are several hurdles in recruiting minority attorneys to Grand Rapids firms: “It depends on the particular individual being recruited,” he said.

Sometimes, said Miles, one hears that Grand Rapids doesn’t offer enough social and cultural activities for people of color who are professionals.

“And frankly, there aren’t enough high level executives — much less partners — in the local law firms that are people of color,” he said. Minority attorneys who may be considering an employment offer at a Grand Rapids area firm may balk if they see they would be the only minority individual there.

Miles said the general feeling of those individuals is “I don’t really see a role model or a potential mentor or someone who’s around to show me the ropes as much as I would like.”

“People go where they have the most opportunity and the best opportunity for success,” said Miles. He said when senior partners at a firm look for a new young attorney to mentor and offer “great projects” and assignments, they are more likely to select individuals whom “they have things in common with, that they can project a younger version of themselves. And so I think it’s a very subtle issue.”

Salas came to the United States from the Dominican Republic in 2002 and graduated from law school at Michigan State in 2006. She was recruited by Warner Norcross & Judd at a job fair — “minority conference” — in Ohio, held specifically for new minority attorneys. She has high praise for Warner, stating the firm has “a very proactive diversity program,” and is “actively participating with the different bar associations” to recruit diverse attorneys.

Salas said she left her “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” at Warner for another such opportunity last year, when Wyoming defense and immigration attorney Jose Sandoval was convicted of obstructing justice and sentenced to six months in prison. The conviction required him to divest himself of his law firm, so Salas and two other attorneys joined forces to buy the business lock, stock and barrel. In the 15 months since, the Avanti Law Group has grown from three attorneys to nine, plus four support staff.

Law firms that haven’t made as much progress as Warner in recruiting minority attorneys have help available. Grand Rapids has a “lot of programs designed to open up the minds of people not used to having minorities around them,” said Salas, such as the Institutes for Healing Racism that are put on by the Grand Rapids Area Center for Ecumenism. Programs like that, she said, can offer insight to law firms that don’t have any minority lawyers but would like to.

Salas insists she is not a voice for the minority community here, but she offered her opinion on the issue of big cities being more attractive to young minority attorneys. It’s not that they simply prefer a big city: “They will prefer any other place than being in a place that is a conservative white majority,” Salas said, adding they “want to be around people who understand them and make them feel comfortable.”

“I don’t think we look for bigger cities. I guess we just look for places that are welcoming,” she said.

Salas has collected statistics she uses in presentations regarding diversity in the legal field. In 2008, she said, women were more than one-third of all U.S. lawyers, but Hispanic women were only 1.3 percent of the total and Hispanics of both genders were only 3.3 percent, which Salas said is “the lowest representation of any racial or ethnic group as compared to their overall presence in the nation.”

Salas said 75 percent of women of color and 74 percent of men of color who are entry-level associates will leave the firm within five years. Most Hispanic women attorneys will leave their firm within two to three years, she added.

“As a young lawyer, you are on the partnership track,” said Logan. “You have to bring in so much business, and you are given so much time to do that. That can be a problem because many young (minority) lawyers are first-generation lawyers. Their fathers are not Dick DeVos, they’re not Peter Secchia. Their fathers are not in the business arena where they can bring business in to the firm.”

He said that it adds to the challenge if the young minority attorney is “not real aggressive with regard to getting out in the community and going to functions” where they can become known. “And again, the firm has to help them with much of that, too” he said.

“If they don’t move up in the partner track, then after three or four years, they’re gone, because the firm’s not going to keep them,” said Logan.

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