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44th Street Notes


May 2001

Does the legal profession in the United States today embody the self-evident truth of the Declaration of Independence-equal opportunity for all-or do its members, as one poet put it, "have promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep?" A brief examination of some of the available statistics suggests evidence from which to argue for either point of view, but the poet is ahead on points. Consequently, it may be time to remind ourselves of some historic truths, as well as some modern ones, as we consider the role of U.S. lawyers, especially those in New York City, in an increasingly diverse, global economy.

Notwithstanding Disraeli's admonition that there are three kinds of lies: "Lies, damn lies and statistics," to measure the progress of minorities and women in our profession, it is necessary to begin with some publicly available statistics on the status of women and minorities in the legal profession, although it should be noted that the statistics are incomplete in many respects.

The signs of progress in advancing equality of opportunity are apparent: women rising ten-fold in 30 years from 3% to 31% of lawyers overall and minorities rising almost five-fold in 20 years from 2.9% to 12.9% of associates in the 250 largest law firms in the U.S. But what will it take to say of our profession what Martin Luther King said of his hopes for our society when we consider that minority lawyers represent only 3.9% of the partners in the 250 largest law firms?

I have a dream that my children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

Let there be no mistake about the issue of diversity in the legal profession, especially racial diversity -this is a marathon, not a sprint. Efforts to shape the views of young men and women in minority communities toward the law as a profession must begin in high school. Programs sponsored by law firms and corporate law departments can introduce young women and minorities to basic concepts of justice, the rule of law and the power of the law to effectuate peaceful change. The legal profession's efforts to reach out to young people in minority communities must continue through college and law school in the form of summer jobs, internships and scholarships with those private and public institutions-law firms, corporations and governmental agencies-that will benefit, like society itself, from the future services of talented minority lawyers. Programs such as these will provide young minorities with an introduction to the legal profession that may not otherwise be available to them. Mentoring relationships between senior lawyers-irrespective of race, gender or sexual orientation-and young minority lawyers are essential to ensuring that career development paths are open to those who otherwise may conclude that there is no room at the top. Clients are also an essential part of the equal opportunity equation for minority lawyers at law firms. Clients must both experience and see the role minority lawyers play in handling their matters. Exposure to clients is a critical experience for all young lawyers. In the end, clients demand-and have a right to expect-competent professionals to represent them and to receive their trust and confidence. Exposure to minority lawyers will demonstrate to clients that competency knows no bounds based on race or gender; whereas, without experience, attitudes may. Mentoring relationships are one way that law firms and legal departments can educate lawyers about racial and gender-based stereotypes. Law firms and legal departments must also pursue other internal efforts to eliminate negative stereotypes, and what better place to look for such insensitivities than in traditional employment evaluations? Recruiting young minority law students at a wider variety of law schools and retaining search firms for lateral hires that have a proven record of identifying talented minority lawyers are also productive steps to be taken. Minority job fairs, as well as contacts with minority law student associations and minority bar associations, similarly provide alternative means to identify and recruit talented minority lawyers. The goal of promoting diversity in the legal profession might be viewed as a moral and historical imperative or an expression of professional self-interest, i.e., the need to expand the pool of talented young people to whom the complex legal problems of the 21st century will be entrusted, or both. Legal institutions-law firms and corporate law departments-in New York City have a particular self-interest in promoting diversity among its lawyers. New Yorkers pride themselves as being in the center-or at least in one of the principal centers-of the rapidly expanding global economy. It is yet another self-evident truth that most of the rest of the world looks different from the male, Caucasian majority of the U.S. legal profession, including that segment of the profession in New York City which must continue to export its expertise abroad in order to remain competitive. Whether we focus on the specific or the general, the moral or the practical, a distinguished member of our profession said it best 140 years ago:

It is a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men - to lift artificial weights from all shoulders - to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all - to afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life. Abraham Lincoln.

Promoting diversity in the legal profession is a race-indeed a marathon-in which we must all be participants.

1The author wishes to thank Sarah Jeffries and Nathan Rosen of the Credit Suisse First Boston Legal & Compliance Department for their assistance in the preparation of this article.

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