Law firms struggle with recruiting and retaining minority lawyers

Law firms struggle with recruiting and retaining minority lawyers
CORBIS

Law school? That’s the easy part.

Minorities who graduate from high school and college and who win admission to law school tend to get their JDs and pass the bar. And even in the current tepid economic climate, employers are still pursuing newly minted lawyers of color.

Yet data shows that nationwide, an astonishing 87 percent of ethnically and racially diverse law firm associates quit within their first five years on the job.

The challenges are myriad — particularly here.

Just 13 percent of attorneys in Minnesota come from a population of color — only marginally better than the national average of 11.6 percent. A 7-year-old nonprofit, Twin Cities Diversity in Practice helps its members, 27 local law firms and 12 corporate legal departments, attract and retain a more diverse legal workforce.

It’s a surprisingly tough task, particularly for an urban area that has not traditionally attracted a lot of minority professionals.

“The Twin Cities has done a better job talking about its business climate,” said Executive Director Val Jensen. “It’s pretty white and pretty cold. So why would you want to come here as an African American or a Latina?”

Val Jensen
Val Jensen

And once you’ve moved here, often from a community that gets more of its minorities to law school, what’s going to help with the culture shock that comes with grueling schedules, outdated workplace values and a dwindling number of big-buck partnerships as the reward for acculturating?

It’s Jensen’s job to pay attention to every segment of the pipeline, from getting more candidates into law schools, making sure they understand the realities of the profession and ensuring that their employers create room for advancement and life-work balance.

A recent Minnesota State Bar Association study [PDF] found a small uptick in the annual attrition rate among minority lawyers, from 7 percent in 2005 to 11 percent last year.

The same study also found a dip in the recruiting of minorities by law firms, which have been notoriously hard hit by the recession, but an increased focus on the part of corporate legal departments and other entities that employ attorneys.

Perceptions of racial bias
Interestingly, the bar survey found that while overall perceptions of racial bias in the profession have risen in the last five years, they are down among minorities. In 2005, two-thirds of minority attorneys said they had experienced bias in their dealings with other lawyers, vs. 56 percent last year.

The percentage reporting discrimination in workplaces dropped from 77 to 75 during the same period, while perceived bias in courtrooms fell from 61 to 59 percent. Law schools are perceived as the most welcoming environments, with experiences with bias reported by 52 percent.

The overall rise in perceived racial discrimination can be attributed to greater awareness on the part of non-minorities. Some of those in supervisory positions surveyed by the bar said they would be interested in training on unconscious bias.

Still, the state bar found that a disproportionate number of lawyers quit jobs here each year while employers continue to complain that the career-preparation pipeline is not producing enough candidates.

Which means Diversity in Practice’s work is cut out. “Our focus is on getting lawyers of color into the Twin Cities and then supporting our members in keeping them here,” said Jensen.

Recently, the organization invited some 75 minority students from the Twin Cities’ four law schools to the Minneapolis offices of Faegre & Benson, where they spent an evening meeting mentors they’ll be teamed with during a 6-month-long mentoring program.

“The way large law firms work is they bring [prospects] in after the second year of law school typically,” said Jensen. “Everyone wants to take you to lunch. But that wooing period is not at all indicative of what the next three to five years of your life is going to look like.

“You get on the job and in your practice group and then there’s a disconnect of expectations,” she added. “You might very well have to do [tedious] document review for a few years.”

Better to form an early relationship with someone who is working 80 hours a week and otherwise making the sacrifices many associates can expect.


Perception of major/moderate bias in 2011

Perception of major/moderate bias in 2011
2011 SAGE Report: Self-Audit for Gender Equity and Diversity

The group also sponsors an annual recruiting conference that brings upwards of 150 minority candidates to the Twin Cities to meet with potential employers. At the event, the visiting students are told about the same quality-of-life factors that other employers use to sell the metro area.

The number of Fortune 100 companies located here is one such factor. Another is the urban area’s manageable size.

“Lawyers are always concerned with how do you get access to people,” said Jensen. “It’s important to be able to build your business.”

She also talks about living in the city: “I talk about the fact that my kids go to public schools and they’re pretty decent. My commute is manageable.”

Generational issues
Diversity in Practice doesn’t just work with new lawyers. Much of its work involves educating its members. In addition to talking about recruiting, welcoming and promoting minorities, the organization is grappling with many of the same generational issues law firms are confronting with younger non-minorities.

For one thing, many younger lawyers are reluctant to scrabble for a partnership.

“It used to be, ‘Hey, I’m going to be a partner in a law firm, that’s the pinnacle,'” said Jensen. “Now it’s like, ‘Oh, I’m going to be a partner in this business? I don’t know if I want that.'”

An increasing number of law school grads want to get a good first job, pay off their loans and then move on to doing what they want to do, she added. And increasingly, that does not include being seen by the right people for the right number of hours each week.

“Face-time to them is Facebook,” said Jensen. “They can do their work anywhere. So how do you measure success and what does that look like?”

For some, it means giving back. One of this year’s mentors was a program participant just a few years back. Esteban Rivera grew up in Ecuador and practiced law there before emigrating to the United States. He graduated from Hamline’s law program a year ago and now practices at Igbanugo Partners International Law Firm.

“Now, he’s reaching back and being a mentor to someone at his old law school,” said Jensen. “We’ve got to build that pipeline, and prime it early and often.”

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 12/02/2011 - 10:35 am.

    All things about law firms in Minnesota make it difficult to recruit and retain minorities and women. Things are changing–but part of the change simply means waiting for the old guard to move toward retirement. Believe it or not, though, some lawfirms are actually adapting pretty quickly to the changing social climate, particularly focusing on family values–which is colorless, but weighs heavily on all workers, particularly women.

    Part of the problem with recruiting and retaining minorities in this area of the country is the currently nearly lily white composition. It’s not intentional, it’s merely population. BUT…it has the potential to make minorities feel more conspicuous. And those of us of the pale persuasion WANT to include everyone, but it can be viewed as trying too hard BECAUSE someone is a minority.

    At the firm I work, the focus is on inclusion rather than just diversity. It’s easy enough to woo good law students of any race, nationality, or gender. But, as discussed in the article, working in a law firm is not all free lunches and ponies once you graduate. We’re encouraged to make an effort to connect with people. It can be perceived as bias for someone of the majority population to single out someone of a minority population to have lunch, but if all parties take it as it is–an invitation to lunch by someone who wants to get to know you, it’s a good thing for all parties involved.

  2. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 12/02/2011 - 11:52 am.

    Do you have any context for the 87 percent figure? What is the five-year quit rate for all lawyers?

  3. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/02/2011 - 12:24 pm.

    They’d rather work for the government. The NAACP did a study awhile back and discovered that almost 70% of black college graduates work for the government (which the NAACP saw as a GOOD thing.)

    I would bet this is a factor with the attorneys too. They’ve been encouraged to seek out the comfort and stability of a government job versus the attraction of working for a private firm where you could make a lot of money and maybe even work your way up to partnership. Too hard. Too unpredictable. No guarantees.

  4. Submitted by Matt Bowers on 12/02/2011 - 03:10 pm.

    Mr. Tester provides an example of why it is difficult to recruit minorities of any employment classification in this area. He provides a factoid out of context and then proceeds to list a number of generalities that are the equivalent of “lazy and shiftless”. And, of course, he will protest mightily that is not what he meant.

  5. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/02/2011 - 04:00 pm.

    Mr. Bowers, seeking the safe refuge provided by government employment isn’t limited to minorities as you can probably attest. I simply made the connection to what the NAACP was reporting since it was the subject of this article.

  6. Submitted by Jim Roth on 12/02/2011 - 05:42 pm.

    Dennis, you say you got your information from a NAACP report “awhile back.” Where did you get your law degree and where did you practice law? Do you know any minority lawyers? I was a hiring partner for several years at a major law firm and minority lawyers were having a great deal of difficulty getting hired at law firms. Many ended up in government jobs but not for any of the reasons you mentioned, although I’m sure there are some exceptions. But I think your generalization is ill-founded.

  7. Submitted by Ray Marshall on 12/02/2011 - 06:05 pm.

    “Part of the problem with recruiting and retaining minorities in this area of the country is the currently nearly lily white composition. It’s not intentional, it’s merely population.”

    Lots of journalists and government officials think that we in Minnesota are evil because we live so far north and remote from jobs in this country. it is our fault that when Blacks started migrating out of the South that they found jobs and some prosperity in Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, etc.

    We should have forced them to come here.

  8. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 12/06/2011 - 01:18 pm.

    @#7
    That would be funny, if it didn’t have a grain of truth. Quite frankly, if you were migrating from the South to the North, would you keep going once the climate started getting cold?

    Still, it’s not that the general population that’s so lily white. It’s that the professional population is so much more pale than the general population. That’s borne out of the fact that the earlier established population was much more European in coloration and that migrants from the South and from outside the US had lower levels of education. That does not stop the migrants and their children from becoming qualified to be attorneys Up Nort. BUT…because the population in law firms up here has been so homogeneous for a long time, it’s hard to be the first one or one of the first to get the melting pot mixing. It’s intimidating and awkward on all sides of the equation. Combine that with the fact that it gets so stinking cold and isolated in the winter time, why wouldn’t you look to at least ease one of the stressors, whether it be reduced hours, warmer weather, or a population of coworkers with a similar background?

    As for Mr. Tester’s condescension “Too hard. Too unpredictable. No guarantees.” It’s just plain disgusting to suggest that minorities quit private practice because it’s too hard. I work in a law firm, and before that, I was in academia. Lots of smart people leave both because of the antiquated views on work and family. Women leave because they find that, in order to raise a family AND be a successful professor or lawyer, they have to double, triple, or quadruple the work they do to be perceived as being as successful as their male counterparts. Some law firms, at least, are recognizing that women aren’t ruined by using their uteruses. Academia is behind on that.

    Minorities leave law firms because they feel “token.” That is, some feel that their position was justified by the color of their skin, not the quality of their minds, and it CAN be true. This is less of a problem in academia.

    Some people, no matter their background, gender, race, etc., quit law firms or academia because they find that the stress just isn’t worth the rewards. Fewer hours or not having to bill time is often worth the reduced pay for people. Plus, law firms and universities are tightening their belts. There is a very big possibility that you will NEVER achieve partnership or tenured professorship no matter how much time and effort you put into it. Even if you wanted the added responsibility (and the unpredictable pay for partnership in a law firm–it’s not all big dollars when you reach the top), all the hard work in the world might not get you there. To boil it down to “Too hard. Too unpredictable. No guarantees.” is insulting to people with the talent and intelligence to be a good attorney.

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