Law Practice

Diversity Still Elusive Goal for Law Firms

Once excluded from many careers in the legal profession, members of racial minority groups are now welcome to practice at law firms in Wisconsin, and throughout the nation. But they still represent only a tiny fraction of those practicing at major firms, and more still needs to be done to level the playing field, many believe.

For instance, while there was no dispute among those interviewed for an in-depth article in the Capitol Times that diversity benefits Wisconsin law firms, “no one seemed to know even how many attorneys of color are practicing in Wisconsin,” the Madison newspaper reports, noting that the state bar doesn’t keep such statistics.

“That’s part of the problem. Nobody’s keeping track,” says Lee R. Jones, president of the Wisconsin Association of African-American Lawyers. However, Michelle Behnke, an attorney who made headlines a few years ago when she was elected the first African-American president of the state bar, speculates that one reason why major law firms lack minorities is because many minority law graduates are older students less willing to put up with the difficult demands such firms make on their attorneys.

That isn’t the only reason, though, why minority attorneys continue to be underrepresented in big firms, compared to their numbers in the profession as a whole, according to a recent surveys. And representatives of a number of major Wisconsin firms acknowledge the issue and are trying to help resolve it, the newspaper reports.

For instance, Foley & Lardner monitors the projects that are assigned to minority attorneys, to make sure they are given an opportunity to demonstrate their talents, says Maureen McGinnity, the firm’s chief diversity partner. “We had assumed that people who do good work would be noticed and that it would result in a successful career. Now we recognize that that works great as long as you have access to the work.”

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