Counsel of color - Minority attorneys face an unyielding wall in corporate law
Pick up any issue of Fortune or Forbes magazine and the cover invariably shows the typical face of corporate America—that of a white male. Although the number of minority attorneys in corporate law, the sector which includes the law departments of corporations as well as law firms themselves, has increased in recent years, the sector remains one of the most ethnically homogeneous, especially in its upper ranks. The National Association of Law Placement reports that 43 percent of all U.S. law firms do not have a single partner of color.
“Recent light was shed on the Black presence in corporate law when more than 60 law firms agreed to give their clients diversity data on their legal teams. As reported in a May 13, 2005, article in the New York Law Journal, it was because of a pact brokered by the New York County Lawyers Association,” says Nadine C. Johnson, president of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association in New York. “This effort and others like it, where firms sign on to a statement committing to diversity, makes for a more level playing field,” she says.
Increasing the Black presence makes economic sense, Johnson says. “The climate will be driven by the community these corporations serve. The demand for more Black attorneys by corporate clients is a definitive incentive for corporations and large law firms to increase their level of hiring attorneys of color,” she says.
According to the Minority Corporate Counsel Association’s “2005 Fortune 500 General Counsel Survey,” 28, or 5.6 percent, of Fortune 500 general counsel are minorities and 76, or 15 percent, are women. Of the 76 who are women, five, or 0.5 percent, are minorities. Of the total 28 percent who are minorities, 19, or 3.8 percent, are African-American, no change from 2004; five, or 1 percent, are Hispanic, an increase of three persons from 2004; three, or 0.6 percent, are Asian/Pacific Islanders, an increase of one person from 2004; and one, or 0.2 percent, is Native American, an increase of one person from 2004.
“If you take a look at the numbers, they are indicative of where corporations are in terms of diversity in their legal departments. There are currently 28 minority general counsels (Fortune 500 companies). That’s a huge increase from where corporate America was three to five years ago,” says Shawn Boynes, the association’s director of programs.
MCCA was founded in 1997 to advocate for the expanded hiring, retention and promotion of minority attorneys in corporate law departments and in the law firms that serve them. So pressing are these issues that the association’s Sixth Annual Creating Pathways to Diversity Conference, held Nov. 2 at the New York Marriott Marquis Hotel, was sold out well before the event. Titles of the conference’s workshops and seminars reflect some of the biggest frustrations of diversity in corporate law. Some examples:
- “Diversity and Pro Bono—Separate But Not Equal.” Many organizations group diversity and pro bono initiatives together. While both are very important, they need different strategic attention to ensure success, MCCA says.
- “Busting the Myth About Exclusion.” The perception persists among white attorneys that efforts to assist ethnic minorities are made at their expense.
- “Developing Affinity Groups: Learn-ing From Corporate Counter-parts.” Law firms still struggling with diversity can learn from corporations that have taken the lead on building diverse organizations.
In 2003, MCCA launched Creating Pathways to Diversity™, a three-year research project to study how corporate law departments and law firms design, implement and monitor their diversity progress. Association officials say that by collecting and reporting on diversity best practices in law firms and law departments, they will be able to create effective professional skills development programs for minority attorneys.
Costly workplace discrimination lawsuits, including high-profile cases at major corporations such as The Coca Cola Co. and Morgan Stanley, are forcing the issue of diversity in corporate law. A Jan. 10, 2005, report in Fortune notes that 63 percent of corporate general counsel identify employment discrimination lawsuits as their companies’ greatest exposure. The Washington Post has reported that workplace discrimination lawsuits are the second largest source of federal civil litigation.
“Creative recruitment of qualified attorneys from tier three and tier four law schools and from qualified attorneys who have gained experience in the public sector would certainly increase the likelihood of more Black attorneys in corporate America,” Johnson says.
MCCA has made the recruitment of more Blacks to the corporate legal world a priority. Educational programs, training, scholarships and partnering with law schools that provide financial assistance will play a larger role in its recruitment strategy, it says. Equally important, the association will continue to monitor diversity advancement in law offices nationwide.
By Theresa Racine