The legal profession has a diversity problem.
Statistics published by the American Bar Assn. show that — despite many firms’ efforts — progress has been marginal.
In 2017, women made up just 35 percent of all active attorneys who participated in a national survey conducted by the ABA. And non-white attorneys represented a mere 15 percent of that same pool.
The numbers are so low that in 2016, the ABA adopted a resolution urging legal employers and clients to create more opportunities for diversity in the profession.
Many legal community insiders say that when it comes to finding qualified minority, LGBTQ and women candidates, it pays to recruit early and build what some called a “pipeline of diverse candidates.”
As Rudene Haynes, hiring partner at Hunton & Williams in Richmond, Va., put it: The idea is to build loyalty in the communities where your company does business.
“Hunton & Williams has used [internship programs] as an opportunity to invest in the best and brightest, to give them the opportunity to work early, fall in love and stay,” Haynes said.
Besides internships, firms use tactics such as offering scholarships, doing community outreach, providing and participating in networking opportunities and marketing their current diversity to get their names out there and attract the best diverse candidates.
Denise Gunter, the head of Nelson Mullins’ office in Winston-Salem, N.C, said that her firm starts reaching out to diverse talent when they are still in high school.
“We partner with clients and high schools in Columbia, S.C., to deliver street law, diversity pipeline programs,” Gunter said. “Those are programs to help educate high school students about various legal issues, and that’s also a great way for us to start meeting people before college.”
She said that her firm also has partnered with historically black Claflin University in South Carolina to offer pre-law scholarships.
Jorge Leon from Michael Best & Friedrich LLP, which has locations throughout the country, including North Carolina and Wisconsin, said his firm encourages employees to do diversity-related pro-bono work to further the firm’s brand.
“You got to be there to inspire the next generation,” Leon said.
When it comes to the actual act of hiring, many firms go the extra mile, by traveling to diversity hiring fairs like the Southeastern Minority Job Fair and establishing relations with historically black universities and minority law student organizations.
Many firms also focus attention on hiring laterally through affiliation in local and national diversity bar associations.
David Mackey of Anderson & Kreiger LLP in Boston said his firm was the recent beneficiary of such a lateral move when former U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz decided to join the firm after they hosted the gala for the Massachusetts Black Lawyers Association.
“Sometimes you just never know where those benefits are going to come from,” Mackey said.
Meantime, Hunton & Williams’ Haynes noted that it’s one thing to hire a diversity of employees and quite another to have a diverse group working in significant leadership positions.
“It’s helpful if the diverse candidate can see role models in the firm,” Haynes said. “If you can see others in that position, it provides some inspiration and shows that it’s possible for you as well.”
One of the biggest factors in retention of diverse attorneys is whether they get paired with a quality mentor or sponsor who can direct them through the policies and politics of the firm while advocating for them.
“It’s not as easy as it might sound to find the right person for each new hire,” said Anthony Rusciano of Plunkett Cooney in Michigan.
Allison Domson of Williams Mullen in Richmond said that her firm has affinity groups overseen by the firm’s diversity committee.
Some firms also recommended participation in national diversity organizations such as the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity which provides employees opportunities for networking and training that the firms sometimes cannot provide on their own.