President's Letter

ABA's fidelity to diversity is unyielding

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ABA President Mary Smith

ABA President Mary Smith. (Photo courtesy of ABA President Mary Smith)

Following the June 2023 U.S. Supreme Court ruling dismantling affirmative action in higher education, the legal world has witnessed significant repercussions. Some law firms and law schools have been sued, while some have been recipients of letters threatening litigation unless they, in essence, put an end to their diversity, equity and inclusion programs. In response, some are retreating from their established diversity initiatives—a troubling sign that the drive for an inclusive legal profession is under threat.

Fallout from the decision

Firms such as Perkins Coie and Morrison Foerster have broadened their diversity fellowships to all students, moving away from race-focused programs. The University of Michigan and the University of California at Berkeley now emphasize essays, personal stories and socioeconomic factors in admissions, pivoting away from racial considerations.

The ripples extend beyond the legal domain. On Wall Street, DEI efforts are undergoing significant recalibration in the face of growing backlash. For instance, the Goldman Sachs Group opened its “Possibilities Summit” for Black college students to all races.

These strategic adjustments are being dubbed “lawyerly tweaks” by some executives. While it’s true that a key aspect of legal work is to mitigate risk, such a view undersells the capacities of lawyers as creative thinkers and innovators.

In responding to the Supreme Court decision, lawyers should be wary of diluting previous efforts aimed at directly addressing disparities and instead lead the charge to maintain diversity objectives without running afoul of the law.

What’s more, the number of diverse applicants has not diminished. According to recent figures from the Law School Admission Council, the percentage of people of color in the national law school applicant pool has surged to over 43%—the highest on record, with a nearly 7% rise in minority applicants since last year.

Moving forward

The question is how to harness this moment to effectively support the increasingly diverse applicant pool, ensuring our efforts to promote diversity are both impactful and compliant.

Following the first of these lawsuits, I issued a statement on behalf of the ABA emphasizing that despite these challenges, our dedication to diversity, equity and inclusion remains unwavering. Goal III of the ABA’s mission explicitly commits to eliminating bias and enhancing diversity within the association itself and the legal profession at large. This commitment is a cornerstone of our profession’s integrity and effectiveness.

The ABA’s resolve was further demonstrated at our midyear meeting, where the House of Delegates adopted Resolution 402, which endorsed the New York State Bar Association’s recommendations crafted in response to the Supreme Court decision. Now ABA policy, the recommendations advise law schools and firms to reconsider admissions and hiring criteria to promote diversity in a legally compliant manner, highlighting our ongoing mission to foster inclusion while acknowledging the necessity of evolving our strategies.

Laying a foundation

It is imperative to recognize that our pursuit of diversity is a commitment that goes beyond just numbers. It is about laying a foundation for the ABA and the nation to make it clear that equal opportunities must truly be available to all. The legitimacy of our profession depends on our ability to ensure that the law, which touches every aspect of our society, reflects and serves the diverse fabric of that society.

In this new era, the American Bar Association stands firm: Our dedication to diversity, equity and inclusion is unyielding. Our approach may change, but our goal does not. Because at its core, this is the lifeblood of our organization and our future. Our aim is not merely to adapt—it is to lead by example.

It is in this spirit that we move forward, motivated by the conviction that our collective efforts will pave the way for a more equitable future in the law. Together, we will continue to ask vital questions and seek answers that align with our core values, ensuring the promise of equality and justice for all remains at the heart of everything we do.

This story was originally published in the June-July 2024 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “The ABA’s Unyielding Fidelity to Diversity.”

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