Your ABA

A Long March


But Baca, who chairs the ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession, fears that lawyers will celebrate these achievements without also recognizing that much still needs to be done for the legal profession to achieve full diversity. “People think it’s time to relax,” says Baca of Washington, D.C. “We can’t let up. We’ve got to continue the drumbeat. Those victories show us what can be done, not the measure of what has been done.”

Baca’s concerns are supported by the findings of a report being issued by the diversity commission.

Titled “Miles to Go: Progress of Minorities in the Legal Profession,” the report states that lawyers continue to trail those in other key professions in terms of minority representation. Less than 9.7 percent of lawyers in the United States are minorities, while minorities make up 20.8 percent of accountants and auditors, 24.6 percent of physicians and surgeons, and 18.2 percent of college and university teachers.

There is some good news. Taking the long view, the report notes, “Even compared to 25 years ago, the progress of minorities in the profession looks pretty good.” Current statistics–minorities account for 20.3 percent of law students, 14.5 percent of law firm associates and 4 percent of partners–are indicators of that progress.

Nevertheless, “Minority progress in the profession remains frustratingly low,” states the report written for the diversity commission by Elizabeth Chambliss, a professor at New York Law School in Manhattan.

A key factor is that minority enrollment in law schools may have topped out, the report suggests. Minority enrollment actually dropped slightly, from 20.6 percent of all law students in 2001 02 to 20.3 percent in 2003 04, the report notes.

After graduation, minorities are less likely to enter private practice than whites, and more than half of minority associates leave their firms within the first three years of practice. Minorities continue to be grossly underrepresented in the top ranks of the profession, such as firm partners and corporate general counsel, states the report, and progress in the profession has been especially slow for minority women.

Based on statistics from 2000, African Americans are the minority group with the highest representation in the legal profession at 3.9 percent, followed by Hispanics at 3.3 percent, Asian Americans at 2.3 percent and American Indians at 0.2 percent. But Asian Americans and Hispanics are experiencing the fastest rate of growth in the profession, according to the report.

Change in the Air

There are opportunities to improve these patterns in a changing business climate that is adapting to projections that the U.S. population will become “majority minority,” the report states. “Although it is too early to tell whether this new rhetoric will translate into more rapid progress, especially in top level jobs, law firms clearly have begun to take notice and to invest in diversity consulting.”

The report urges law schools to develop holistic approaches to admissions and distance themselves from an overreliance on LSAT scores, which are a “weak predictor” of success and put minorities at a disadvantage.

Law firms and other legal employers should include diversity in their business plans with enforcement in the hands of the lawyers who run the firm, states the report. The report also recommends more systematic research to better measure patterns of diversity within the profession. (The report does not necessarily reflect official ABA policy adopted by the House of Delegates.)

At some level, lawyers must make a personal commitment to greater diversity in the profession through mentoring and other activities, say Chambliss and Baca.

“This is what I’ve done with my life,” says Baca, an American Indian. “All of us as lawyers need to look at it and ask what can we do to make a difference.”

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