Diversity Recruiting, Sidelined by Recession, Is Rebounding

Mary Welch | January 23, 2015

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     D'Arcy Kimnitz, Executive Director, National LGBT Association

D'Arcy Kimnitz, Executive Director, National LGBT Association

In 2002, the National LGBT Bar Association held its first job fair for gay and lesbian lawyers, and most of the time the aspiring lawyers sat around the table—waiting to be interviewed by someone.

Representatives from a couple of dozen businesses showed up at the Philadelphia event, mostly nonprofits plus a few law firms, "and we were delighted," recalls D'Arcy Kemnitz, executive director of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender bar. The next year, the fair was held at Fordham University and was picketed by antigay activists. But by the 2006 fair, more than 125 entities recruited, including some of the 50 richest law firms.

Then in 2009, the recession rolled around. "The big law firms were merging like crazy and weren't even accepting résumés or cover letters, even though we had about 500 students show up for our career fair," Kemnitz says. "It was an extremely unhappy time and we worked with students on how to hang out their shingle instead of getting a job in a big law firm," she says.

That was then.

Today, law firms of all sizes are back recruiting, although not yet at prerecession levels. The commitment to diversity seems to be at least as strong as prerecession levels, even though the overall competition for spots is more intense. According to a 2014 survey from the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA) and vault.com, the overall number of minority attorneys has rebounded since the recession, growing from 13.44 percent at the end of 2009 to 14.56 percent for 2013, with the most progress coming in the partnership ranks rather than first-year recruiting.

"We saw a precipitous drop [during the recession] and I'm glad to see numbers creeping back into prerecession range. Let's just say I'm cautiously pleased, but we still need to be pressing the issue," says Aracely Muñoz Petrich, vice president of strategic development for the MCCA.

"I think the short answer is that the goal that we all strive for has never stopped, and I don't think the downturn has changed anything on how we look at these issues," says Dave Leonard, shareholder at Carlton Fields Jorden Burt. "It's a conscious effort for us and our leadership. It's like in our DNA."

Over at Jones Day, recruiting of diverse lawyers has "never been stronger. It's more robust," says partner Walt Davis. "My commitment as the hiring partner is to find the best young legal talent and we've been successful, in part, because students know from top to bottom we are a meritocracy in a true sense. They know they will be treated fairly and will have a real chance for success—whatever that means for them individually."

Davis adds, "We're a 2,400-person firm that pulls from a number of backgrounds all over the world, and our mission and purpose are to celebrate those differences—as corny as that may sound."

Jones Day works with several pipeline programs, such as those from the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity and Sponsors for Educational Opportunity (SEO), that offer internships to top-tier college graduates entering law schools. The SEO program allows students to observe and experience the day-to-day duties and responsibilities of attorneys at some of the nation's most prestigious law firms. Jones Day pioneered the program in Atlanta last summer and will sponsor a second intern next year.

More than 35 SEO participants are now partners at major law firms, including Chaka Patterson in Jones Day's Chicago office; two current Atlanta associates were SEO interns in other Jones Day offices.

SEO's law program was started in 1986 and has grown substantially since, with interns being placed in law firms in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Houston, Los Angeles, Dallas and Atlanta.

"The program is growing [but it's] not explosive growth, and through the recession we grew slowly," says William Goodloe, president and CEO. "Recruiting at the entry level never stops; the numbers may fluctuate, but there will always been a need for new full-time associate hires. We offer an opportunity to get access to a pool of talent that they meet early on. They get a first look at these students that they would probably otherwise have met later on. They meet and stay in touch."

Goodloe says that even if a firm doesn't hire the student, "there is a certain benefit to raising awareness of a firm by networking with these students. Diverse students become very aware of specific firms that have a true interest in diversity."

In October, the survey by vault.com and the MCCA indicated that overall minority and women attorneys are making slow but steady advancements. However, the survey, which includes data from 241 law firms, also showed that the percentage of black summer associates has fallen, while the number of Hispanic and Latino summer associates has increased.

According to the survey, the number of African-American summer associates has fallen steadily over the past several years; 7.27 percent of the class of 2007 of summer associates were African-American, and in 2013, that figure was 6.43 percent. (For black attorneys—including laterals and starting associates—hired in 2013, the percentage was below the 2007 level of 5.61 percent.)

During that same period, Asian-American summer associates increased from 12.88 percent in 2007 to 14.11 percent in 2013, even though the number of Asian-American enrolled students is down. Latino law students represented 5.46 percent of the 2L summer associate class in 2013, the same as in 2012, which was the largest number reported since 2007; their enrollment numbers are also going up.

As for LGBT law students, 3.46 percent of summer associates said they were openly gay, compared with 2.01 percent in 2007. "That's a pretty big increase, and I think that's reflective of a big cultural shift," says Petrich. "There still is a strong stigma, but these numbers are those who have a comfort level at this stage in their careers of being open about who they are."

Kemnitz of the LGBT association says that there is a difference between firms reaching out to other diverse groups versus the LGBT community. "We have operated on a 'don't ask, don't tell' basis and that feeds directly into recruiting. But we've seen law firms come to us asking for our members' résumés as early as possible so they can start a dialogue," she says.

Still, it's not easy. "You know we're either gender conforming or nonconforming, and many still don't feel comfortable in a law firm environment. Many don't feel comfortable being in the Midwest or Middle America. They need to be in major metropolitan areas, and that influences recruiting."

The MCCA's Petrich warns that these numbers shouldn't be looked at in a vacuum. "Although we are seeing increasing numbers of some diverse students recruited by law firms, the numbers don't reflect the overall population. The numbers should be higher. While the recruitment numbers are going up, the overall number of diverse law students is going down."

She sees several reasons for this decline, including that talented diverse college students no longer may see law school as an entry into the American dream.

"I think the recession and the fact that it's harder to get a job may have discouraged some," Petrich says. "Others look at law firms and don't see enough diverse representation and stay away because they don't see opportunities. Maybe others are clerking or doing externships. And then you have the whole generational issue of students not wanting to commit and stay in a job."

In another MCCA report on best recruiting practices, the organization says there are several best practices in recruiting diverse students, such as going outside Ivy League schools or senior management's alma maters to find a greater pool of minority candidates. In addition, recruitment should be expanded, including advertising in minority professional publications, offering scholarships to first-year minority law students and giving campus recruiters diversity training to help them interact more effectively with diverse students.

"On-campus recruiting is still the predominant way of recruiting students, but if diverse students don't see someone who looks like them or if the firm doesn't have a strong history of diverse hiring, it affects them," Petrich says.

The SEO's Goodloe believes that while pipeline programs and other recruiting efforts bring diverse students to the attention of law firms, it also gives the students insight into a law firm's diversity commitment. "That's hard to measure, but these students are aware of the firms that are out there recruiting them and also of corporate legal firms that not only hire diverse students but push their law firms to increase diversity," Goodloe says.

Leonard of Carlton Fields agrees that a track record helps when recruiting. "I think you have to look for opportunities or participate when they arise, such as if you are called to speak to the Pacific-American Bar Association and other groups. It's easy to say no, but you have to look for these things and do it."

He says his firm participates in a number of diverse organizations and fields résumés from this eclectic pool of candidates. "Our chairman is very active in the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity and that's at a high level. You cannot work here and not have your consciousness raised."

Carlton Fields' CEO, Anastasia C. Hiotis, is openly gay, and the firm has volunteered thousands of hours supporting LGBT equality, played an active role in the landmark lawsuit overturning Florida's ban on same-sex marriage and created a "Legal Handbook for LGBT Floridians."

Such activities, he says, go a long way in impressing LGBT talent and in encouraging firm lawyers to reach out. "If you're a lawyer in our firm and you see that, and you see the internal newsletters that talk about it, you tell you colleagues elsewhere or on campuses and you want others like you to join," Leonard says.

Having visible diverse leadership is also a recruiting tool, says Kemnitz. One reason diverse attorneys don't stay in firms, she says, is that they "are brought in to show clients that the firm is diverse and then they never see the clients again. They're not given access to clients. They're treated like support staff."

But she says more law firms are bucking that habit because corporate America is demanding a diverse outside legal team. "Clients know that a diverse work force is better at solving complex problems and all they see doing the real work is business as usual—older white guys—and are demanding change."

And change is coming. The National LGBT Bar Association's 2014 Lavender Law Career Fair, held in New York City, attracted more than 450 candidates and 150 legal recruiters.