Law Students Seek Diversity at Legal Firms

By Mark Jr.

Jul. 18, 2008

It’s not just corporate clients pressuring law firms to increase the diversity of their staffs. It’s also the law students whom they will hire as associates one day—or maybe not be able to hire if they fail to diversify.

    In January 2007, a group of students at Stanford Law School launched an organization called Building a Better Legal Profession. They were inspired to establish the organization after they failed to find a resource that would give them diversity rankings for law firms in New York City.

    So they took it upon themselves to develop diversity statistics and construct their own database. What they discovered shocked them: One-third of the firms in New York had no Hispanic partner and nearly one-third did not have an African-American partner.

    After the group publicized its findings in October, it received more than 10,000 visitors to its Web site—and the numbers keep rising. It also received a burst of media coverage after an event in Washington at the National Press Club.

    The popularity of its work demonstrates the emphasis that young people put on diversity, according to one of the organization’s founders.

    “This is important to my generation,” says Andrew Bruck, a Stanford law graduate who is now clerking for the chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. “I’ve grown up with friends who are black, Hispanic, gay and lesbian, and I expect that [diversity] from my employer.”

    Each spring, law firms hire students like Bruck for their summer associate programs. It’s the pool of talent they cull to make offers for permanent employment.

“This is important to my generation. I’ve grown up with friends who
are black, Hispanic, gay and lesbian, and I expect that [diversity]
from my employer.”
—Andrew Bruck, Stanford law graduate

    That creates an opportunity for students to use their market power to change the way law firms recruit and retain minorities, according to Bruck. If his organization shows a firm lacks minority leadership, it could reduce the number of students willing to accept summer positions there.

    “Firms don’t want to be known as the place that doesn’t have any black partners,” Bruck says.

    The students are trying to get companies to join them in their effort. They sent a letter to Fortune 500 companies in January highlighting the law firm diversity ranking, hoping that they would take the results into account when deciding which firms to hire.

    Andrew Canter, a Stanford law graduate and co-founder of the group, says many companies have implemented their own diversity goals and policies. They need to push law firms, though, to make a difference more widely in the legal profession.

    “Corporations spend a lot of time on [diversity] internally but have less frequently chosen to use market power with outside counsel,” says Canter, a fellow at the Mississippi Center for Justice.

    If that situation continues, the students will be missing a key ally in their diversity push, which may be stalling as large law firm clients demand cost cutting more than increases in minority partners.

    “I’m seeing a sense of stagnation,” Canter says. “We’re hearing that diversity is a third- or fourth-level priority.”

    The issue will have to rise on the to-do list, or law firms will miss their chance to hire future attorneys like Bruck and Canter.

Workforce Management, July 14, 2008, p. 34Subscribe Now!

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