At some point in the career of most minority attorneys, there’s the feeling of being caught between two battles — one for adequate representation in their field and the other for equal opportunity. Despite what some may think, the two are not one and the same. For decades, an array of studies and programs have been dedicated to show the promise of progress when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion (better known as “DEI”). However, putting these types of initiatives into practice always proves harder in the real world.

These are the kind of issues that come across Robert White’s desk every day as the Executive Director of the California Minority Counsel Program (CMCP). Formed in 1989 in San Francisco, the organization was created as a way to help minority lawyers and firms who didn’t have access to clients, weren’t being mentored or sponsored and working on client pitches without a personal network.

“On the flip side there are firms that say they want to diversify but constantly claimed they didn’t have access to minority lawyers,” White said. “A lot of our programming features some aspect of networking and helping lawyers make connections that will help them professionally.”

Though it’s more common these days for firms to want to hire minority attorneys, it’s staggering to look at how disparate the statistics are between the number of minorities in California versus the number that are in the legal profession.

State Bar’s Staggering Statistics

In March, the California State Bar published its second biennial report on diversity, equity and inclusion in the state’s legal profession. According to its statistics, 70% of the state’s 190,000 licensed attorneys are white. Meanwhile, 60% of California’s population are people of color. It’s a bleak figure at face value that becomes even more appalling when you consider what percentage of Black, Hispanic and Asian attorneys are afforded the same job opportunities as their white counterparts once they’ve managed to enter the field.

“If you broke it down even further, asking how many of that 30% of minority attorneys work in the environment of the white 70%, I guarantee you that gap is going to be huge,” one attorney of color working in-house for a large tech company wishing to remain anonymous told CEB. “Because so many lawyers, especially people of color, end up opening up their own solo practice.”

This type of disparity shows why the state bar’s recent 173-page report examining lack of diversity in the legal profession and the request for money to fund resources that leads to solutions for this problem is so critical. Part of the state bar’s strategy with the study was to request $400,000 from the state Legislature for the purposes of increasing diversity and inclusion in the legal profession. But what does it mean to go beyond reports like these and do the hard work it takes to fix the problem of barriers to access and racial discrimination in the legal industry?

Often there is a need to pair minority lawyers with firms seeking to hire them, in the way CMCP does with their Corporate Connections program — speed interviews that allow firms of all sizes a chance to meet a slate of minority candidates that might not have otherwise known about and vice versa. In the state bar’s report, there is an emphasis on uncovering data on racial disparities in California law firms and using those numbers to leverage the hiring of more minority attorneys.

The Struggle Continues After Employment

One of the state bar’s methods in encouraging DEI is to issue report cards to individual firms as a “call to action that provides employers with concrete steps they can take to increase new hire diversity and improve retention rates for attorneys of color and women.”

However, that is only one aspect of the problem facing attorneys. The other is what happens to them after they are hired — and whether or not they choose to stay at their firm.

White says the average length of time for an attorney of color to stay at a big law firm is three years. “[That’s] not a lot of time to develop your skills right and ensure that they got on track to become a long-term partner, which is more like an 8 to 12 years, which means good attorneys are opting out early,” White says.

One minority corporate attorney that spoke to CEB said at the heart of the issue is the value that’s tied to not only representation but compensation for Black and Brown attorneys who are still getting paid less than white counterparts. In some cases, the attorney says, minority attorneys she knows that work at large firms are used as glorified props at pitch meetings for big clients to show the veneer of diversity even though many times the minority attorneys aren’t allowed to bill any hours or actually work on high level cases.

“In my opinion, they can create all these pipelines, they can pour all these money into these programs, but until you tie equity and inclusion to somebody’s compensation package, none of it means a thing,” the attorney said. “Because law firms are the original institution of the United States when you talk about old money and old guards.”

White said that many minority attorneys he’s worked with point to a lack of access when it comes to support and guidance from the firms they work for. “The other challenge is, sometimes for those attorneys who are diverse and are really trying to help that community are tasked both with having to excel in their day job and maybe even feel like they have an even higher standard, because their work may be more closely scrutinized,” White said.

Charting Workplace Inequities

Part of the state bar’s report breaks down inequality and job satisfaction between areas of private practice, government work and in-house counsel.

Although the majority of attorneys work in the private sector, white, Asian, Middle Eastern/North African, and attorneys categorized as “Other” are more likely to do so than Black and Latino attorneys. Black attorneys are less likely to work in law firms than all other racial/ethnic groups.

The government and nonprofit sectors, which together make up only 17 percent of the profession, are the most diverse, but women and people of color remain underrepresented at leadership levels in these sectors. “In the government sector, the underrepresentation of women of color among government executives is largely driven by the underrepresentation of Asian women, who are 8 percent of attorneys employed in this setting, but only 4 percent of executives,” according to the report. “Women, people of color, LGBTQIA+, and people with disabilities consistently report lower levels of satisfaction with workplace experiences, such as salary and opportunities for advancement and career development, compared to their white male counterparts.”

CMCP used much of its resources to help minority attorneys not only find a job, but find a job that’s the best fit for them. One route to making those connections is to find jobs at minority-owned law firms that often come with access to higher-level work and fewer layers between attorneys and clients, along with the intangible perks of being surrounded by other minority attorneys, White says. While that may seem like an easy fix to help minorities find jobs, it can often end up being more of a hindrance if an attorney wishes to work at a bigger firm.

“Often minority-owned firms tend to not be as big as the big ones already on firms–usually 30 or 40 attorneys is pretty large, for minority owned firms,” White said.

There’s also a concern among minority attorneys that joining one of these firms may pigeonhole them and make it harder to get work in non-minority firms in the future.

“A lot of times there’s no way to go back out once you go into that world,” one Black solo attorney who has been courted by minority law firms in the past said. “If we actually value those Black firms and value those minority or those women-owned firms, we shouldn’t get pigeonholed on one side or the other, but I don’t know if that’s the case for all races. I know it is for Black.”

What Can Really Be Done?

In an effort to address issues that come with putting ideas of diversity and inclusion into practice in the legal profession, the state bar’s report cites a number of tools to help, including hosting summits that “feature deep dives into data about workforce demographics and workplace satisfaction in each sector and robust discussions about how to address data findings.”

Aside from issuing report cards that detail a firm’s progress in DEI, the state also wants to implement a program called the DEI Leadership Seal that will make employers’ progress towards implementing calls to action visible for the first time.

One thing White says should be considered is how these types of events programs described in the state bar’s report could be utilized by law firms can lead to substantive change. When he meets with law firms who want advice on how to be more diverse, it’s not always for the right reasons.

“They ask for advice, but they also are very curious about what their peers are doing,” White explains. “They don’t want to essentially kind of look like everyone else has got about on this train but we’re not doing it…I think one of the things that I’ve seen is that often even when these organizations, maybe with good intent, take these steps towards establishing racial equity, they face the metric of just being more transitory or performative. You bring in a diversity speaker that gets everyone excited and all that, but then there’s nothing.”

As for incoming attorneys, enhanced law school reporting requirements, analysis of law school retention programs, and California Bar Exam construction and passage initiatives should be designed to increase the diversity of the attorney pipeline, according to the state bar’s report. However, minorities can only get so far until law firms decide to change not only their policies but their pedigrees when it comes to hiring more non-white attorneys.

The Problem With Pedigree

“Everything breaks down at the end of the day to pedigree,” said one Black in-house attorney at a major tech corporation. “It’s why I knew that I could get hired with [my employer] because I know what their pedigree is for getting hired there. I’m not going to keep banging my head against the wall for [certain high-level tech companies], because they don’t hire from my school, I didn’t work at a top Am Law 100 law firm. So while they say they have such a difficulty hiring people of color and minorities in general, they’re also not changing their pedigree.”

One simple thing that firms can do as a whole is being more attentive to trends when it comes to paying attention to billable hours and looking at it through the lens of diversity, White said. “A diversity officer told me years ago that unfortunately at many firms, if you look at who’s at the bottom of the list of who’s more busy and doing more time off and you find that that makes it whiter at the top right, darker at the bottom,” White said. “A lot of them are not getting access to the most influential rainmaker partners, they’re not getting the same quality of work assignments.”

DEI Fight Needs Good People, Not Just Good Policies

As firms are better able to identify these issues, it’s important to intervene and keep track of when that’s happening. “Rather than admonishing an attorney and having them get eventually get more disillusioned, partners or senior leaders of the law firm come up with a plan to get more work for this person to help ameliorate the issue,” White said.

Overall, though, what will ultimately move the needle is individual accountability when it comes to decisions made not only by law firms but the attorneys working for them who need to do a self-cross examination with questions like these when it comes to diversity:

What are we doing to mentor attorneys of color?

How many people are mentors to people that don’t look like them?

What does our pipeline for minorities look like on an individual basis?

What is our law firm doing as a whole to create a pipeline to invest in attorneys of color?

While the legal professions seems to want change and be more inclusive, the time is long overdue, White says, for leaders in the profession to actually do so.

“I hope to see more efforts that go beyond kind of symbolic and the speechmaking, and go into really rigorous review of the processes that systematically discriminate against people of color and other underrepresented groups,” White said. “I’m hopeful that I think some people who were not as aware of the discrepancies and the challenges are now getting more motivated.”

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