The legal profession has the least representation of racial and ethnic diversity than all professional careers. Diverse attorney attrition is another troublesome issue in...

By Grace Austin

According to the American Bar Association, the legal profession has the least representation of racial and ethnic diversity than all professional careers. Diverse attorney attrition is another troublesome issue in the legal industry. To combat these trends in law, the Center for Legal Inclusiveness (CLI) was founded by a group of Denver-area lawyers and professors in 2007. Headquartered in Denver, Colorado, the CLI is taking a focused approach on working to improve the retention and advancement of diverse attorneys by helping legal organizations create more inclusive workplaces.

“Lawyers are the guardians of equity and justice in our society. For lawyers to be at the bottom of the list with respect to all other professions in terms of representation by racially and ethnically diverse numbers is embarrassing and honestly, quite shameful,” said Executive Director of the CLI Kathleen Nalty. “If everyone involved in the justice system isn’t diverse, and people coming to the courthouse obviously represent every aspect of society, then there’s a big disconnect there. I would hate for people to lose even more confidence in the legal profession because it doesn’t reflect society as a whole.”

Racial and ethnic minorities comprise approximately one-third of the U.S. population, but only 11 percent of lawyers. Attrition rates are remarkably higher for minority attorneys, particularly female attorneys of color. The number of African-American and Mexican-American students graduating from law school has also remained the same for almost twenty years. Besides these shocking statistics, CLI highlights three reasons why diversity is important: improving the product for clients; enriching the work environment; enhancing the overall image of the legal profession.

“If everyone involved in the justice system isn’t diverse, and people coming to the courthouse obviously represent every aspect of society, then there’s a big disconnect there. I would hate for people to lose even more confidence in the legal profession because it doesn’t reflect society as a whole.”

While the latter statistics and reasons show the need for diversity in law, demand for diversity has never been greater in the profession. According to the CLI, demand is being driven by the efforts of corporate legal counsel to put pressure on law firms to hire diverse attorneys. Over one hundred legal departments in Fortune 500 companies signed the 2004 Call to Action, which called on law firms to increase diversity or risk losing those corporations as clients. Call to Action even had direct implications for the formation of the CLI.

“In 2004, that was a wake-up call for the legal profession, and it actually provided a catalyst for a group of folks in Colorado to really look at what needed to be done, what was the missing piece in the diversity discussion and the legal profession, and that’s how CLI got started,” said Nalty.

Since its beginning CLI has been proactive at reaching out to legal professionals and attempting to make profound changes in a stalwart industry. Its most recent initiative, Step Up For Diversity: Take Action to Build An Inclusive Legal Profession, is a national grassroots campaign launched in October 2011. A web-based campaign targeting attorneys, Step Up For Diversity is aimed at getting corporate counsel, supervising attorneys, and all other attorneys working at the individual level to make real progress for diversity by making legal workplaces more inclusive.

CLI created action items (which were born out of a focus group of attorneys who discussed hidden barriers for diverse and female attorneys) that attorneys can complete, like “taking a diverse attorney to coffee” and “creating opportunities … like corporate counsel inviting them to make presentations.”

Step Up for Diversity is a concrete action item program that allows diverse attorneys to interact with decision makers so they can benefit their careers. It’s not just a glossy brochure or a fancy mission statement, but something that everyone can concretely commit to in terms of action statements, both large and small,” said Franz Hardy, CLI Board Member and Partner at Gordon & Rees LLP.

CLI has also designed the only legal inclusiveness manual and website. Called Beyond Diversity: Inclusiveness in the Legal Workplace, the nearly-500 page fifth edition of the manual was released in January. The legal inclusiveness manual was first created to address retaining and advancing diverse legal professionals. Nalty helped create the manual, which was adapted from a six-step inclusiveness manual for the non-profit sector.

“CLI really was the first organization to create the kind of manual that they did. It’s beyond, ‘we need to go out and create inclusive workplaces,’ but here’s how you do it. And here’s some things you are going to encounter along the way,” said co-author Dr. Arin Reeves, who owns Nextions, a professional leadership training and business coaching service.

Adds Nalty: “Any legal organization can use this to address the hidden issues in workplaces that cause women and diverse attorney to walk out the door sooner than you would want.”

To complement the manual, CLI created an Inclusiveness Network – a group of 29 legal organizations that are formally implementing the inclusiveness manual. The Network, formed in 2008, is comprised of 14 law firms, four corporate legal departments, including Walmart and DaVita, nine government legal offices, and Colorado’s two law schools.

Walmart’s Legal Department, which became part of the network in January 2011, employs over 300 people, with more than half of them attorneys. With 43% of the department female, and 32% of diverse background, Walmart needed to develop strategies to retain their diverse employees.

“From the manual, we learned what it is to have Diversity 2.0 – it’s not only diversity but also inclusion. We’ve tried to create an environment that is inclusive, where people feel that they were brought here to be nurtured and hopefully they continue to learn and grow,” said Michael Spencer, Senior Associate General Counsel for Walmart’s Legal Administration & External Relations.

In its home state of Colorado, CLI created the first-ever Colorado legal leaders Roundtable, with a focus on general counsels and managing partners. The group created a model with action items for each leader to implement in their respective organizations.

“We learned what it is to have Diversity 2.0 – it’s not only diversity but also inclusion. We’ve tried to create an environment that is inclusive, where people feel that they were brought here to be nurtured and hopefully they continue to learn and grow.”

Several cutting-edge events have been produced by CLI within the past few years. In August 2010, CLI partnered with the University of Denver Sturm College of Law to bring newly appointed Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latino Supreme Court Justice, to speak to students of all ages. The CLI also convenes an annual Legal Inclusiveness and Diversity Summit, the only D&I conference for the legal industry.

“We knew with inclusiveness, being a new concept in the legal profession, we would need to teach people what it was, and how to do it,” said Nalty.

CLI hopes to make their sixth annual summit their largest yet, held this May in Denver. Spencer can attest to his experiences at the last summit.

“I think [the Summit] was very eye-opening as far as the struggles of what other legal departments are going through. It gave us a feeling that we are in this with many other people. I think [the Summit] is something Kathleen Nalty should be commended for because she was able to bring so many people together under the same banner. To hear other people’s stories as far as what worked and doesn’t work … it was incredibly helpful,” articulated Spencer.

Although Reeves has been involved with the organization for a few years, she sees the organization’s trajectory from an outsider’s perspective, noting its national growth and the power of its message.

“CLI went from Colorado-focused to being in demand on a national basis. One of the reasons why CLI is asked to speak at national conferences and organizations like Walmart ask to be in the inclusiveness network is because organizations and entities are looking for what can really change, and here you have an organization that has created resources and talks to you about it,” said Reeves. “The journey from being a small not-for-profit from Colorado to a thought leader nationally is something that is worth repeating. That’s the power of the idea.”

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