Several times a year, a Denver-based organization called the Center for Legal Inclusiveness (CLI) sifts through the latest data reports from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. They then use those stats to compile a comparative list of American professions, ranked according to their diversity.
Kathleen Nalty, an esteemed civil rights attorney who serves as the CLI’s executive director, sent me a copy of the organization’s most recent report, from December 2010:
What’s so disappointing about Law’s place in the cellar is that our profession has actually made modest strides in recruiting a more diverse workforce in recent years. But that’s only half the battle. It’s what happens next to those lawyers that puts us at or near the bottom of such surveys.
“We are just terrible at retention,” Nalty says, citing recent National Association for Law Placement (NALP) data that show 87% of racially or ethnically diverse law firm associates leave by their fifth year—a downward trend that also affects the dwindling number of minorities (and women) who make Partner. Legal organizations must step up their investment in creating a culture of inclusiveness, by making structural changes that remove hidden barriers and consistently provide opportunities for these young lawyers to advance in their careers. If not, “absolutely nothing will change,” says Nalty, “and the legal profession will remain in last place.”
Making that investment won’t be easy. Steeped in caution, the legal profession is notoriously risk-averse, slow to adjust to new realities or dismantle outmoded structures that marginalize attorneys of diverse backgrounds. We are trained to deal in worst-case scenarios, and avoid uncertain outcomes. The unfamiliar makes us nervous.
“It’s all too easy for members of our profession to simply pay lip service to this issue,” says Jeff Gearhart of Walmart, the LCLD Board member who first brought the CLI survey to my attention—“and then continue doing what we’ve always done, which is very little.”
That’s not good enough.
Which is why LCLD has made changing the legal zeitgeist one of the strategic pillars of our organization. Led by Michele Mayes (below), General Counsel of Allstate, our Partnerships & Teams initiative aims to create a culture of inclusion within Member organizations that will enrich, mentor, retain, and ultimately propel diverse young attorneys towards the very top of our profession. The need is urgent, Mayes said recently, “so that my tenure as a female general counsel of color is not a passing blip on the radar screen.”
We hope to accomplish this through a combination of leadership and action, building meaningful partnerships among LCLD law firms and their clients—and forging diverse teams within the law firms and corporate legal departments of LCLD member organizations. That’s the kind of commitment our Members make when they sign on, and strive to fulfill in the professional relationships that matter the most.
For the next year, Mayes and her colleagues will be working to create systematic, real-world opportunities for the diverse young attorneys our profession has attracted, the “high-value touches” that help them realize their potential and set them on the path to leadership. Ultimately, of course, our goal is to bring out the very best in our profession—and get those diversity numbers moving in the right direction.