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Economy Hurting Diversity

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Judge Ellen Rosenblum
Photo by Jensen Larson

The recession is undermining efforts to achieve greater diversity in the legal profession, says an ABA report released at the midyear meeting.

“While law firms have increasingly come to recognize that diverse corporate clients and international markets often require lawyer diversity,” the report says, “the recession is drying up monies for diversity initiatives and creating downsizing and cutbacks that may disproportionately and negatively affect lawyer diversity—thereby undoing the gains of past decades.”

The report, Diversity in the Legal Profession: The Next Steps (PDF), was produced for the ABA Presidential Initiative Commission on Diversity. The report also urges law schools to take financial considerations into account in seeking greater diversity in admissions, since diverse populations often are most affected by rising tuition costs and heavy debt loads.

Law schools should educate applicants “about planning for the financial aspects of a legal education, including the risks associated with mortgaging their futures (i.e., acquiring excessive student loans) and that they are not guaranteed to secure employment with a $150,000-a-year salary.” But the schools also should explore ways to help bring down legal education costs through innovations such as increasing distance learning opportunities, rethinking the traditional three-year law school curriculum (four years for many night students), and even treating a law degree as a capital asset for tax purposes.

In another key conclusion, the report stresses that it is crucial for the legal profession to define diversity in an expansive way.

“The legal profession increasingly recognizes that (1) diversity encompasses identities beyond race and gender, and (2) race and gender cannot be addressed adequately under rubrics of ‘white/nonwhite’ and ‘male/female,’ ” the report states. Diversity initiatives should encompass members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, as well as disabled lawyers.


The report also calls on law firms to adjust their cultures, not just their numbers, to achieve greater diversity. “Taking effective steps to prevent the systemic and shameful attrition of attorneys from underrepresented groups—especially women attorneys of color—will improve the workplace for everyone and curb an expensive loss for any organization,” the report states.

These and other recommendations were discussed in detail by the presidential commission during the midyear meeting.

“This is not a prescriptive checklist of ‘to dos’ for the profession,” said commission chair Ellen F. Rosenblum, a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals in Salem. Rather, the report is an effort to initiate new thinking about how the profession can achieve greater diversity. “We are making progress, but in some areas we’re still stagnant, and we’re trying to figure out why.” The law school pipeline, for instance, “is still a conundrum,” she said.

ABA President Carolyn B. Lamm appointed the commission to prepare the report as a follow-up to an initiative of her predecessor, H. Thomas Wells Jr., to assess the state of diversity in the legal profession. That initiative included four regional hearings and a summit on diversity in June 2009. (Wells is a partner at Maynard Cooper & Gale in Birmingham, Ala.)

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