Diversity In The Legal Profession

Back in June of 2009, an ABA summit was held to address diversity in the legal profession.  A final report with recommendations has been released.  Professor Margaret Montoya, one member the ABA’s Legal Scholar Team, and professor at University of New Mexico School of Law, has drafted the following summary of the report.  The full report can be read here.

Several racial and ethnic groups, sexual minorities, and lawyers with disabilities continue to be vastly underrepresented in the legal profession. From a racial/ethnic perspective, Whites constitute about 70% of working people over age 16, yet they represent 89% of all lawyers and 90% of all judges, according to 2009 census data. Each year, the numbers of lawyers with disabilities and openly gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered (GLBT) lawyers increase slightly, but their respective percentages remain at less than 1%. For example, in 2009 NALP (Directory of Legal Employers) reported that only about 47% of law offices reporting data had even one openly GLBT lawyer, and most are clustered in just four large coastal cities. Most law offices do not collect data on disabilities, but the 18% that do report data (about 110,000 lawyers) identified only 255 lawyers with a disability.

This Report devotes its pages to specific recommendations for increasing diversity in the different sectors of the profession, namely law firms and corporations, the judiciary and government, law schools and the academy, and bar associations. To provide a conceptual and normative context, the Report articulates and re-emphasizes four rationales for creating greater diversity within the legal profession and draws attention to similar diversity efforts being made and reports being issued in the medical profession. Specifically, here are four compelling arguments for diversity in the legal profession:

The Democracy Argument: Lawyers and judges have a unique responsibility for sustaining a political system with broad participation for all its citizens. A diverse bar and bench create greater trust in the mechanisms of government and the rule of law.

The Business Argument: Business entities are rapidly responding to the needs of global customers, suppliers, and competitors by creating workforces from many different backgrounds, perspectives, skill sets, and tastes. Ever more frequently, clients expect and sometimes demand lawyers who are culturally and linguistically proficient.

The Leadership Argument. Individuals with law degrees often possess the communication and interpersonal skills and the social networks to rise into leadership positions, in and out of politics. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor recognized this when she noted in Grutter v. Bollinger that law schools serve as the training ground for such leadership and therefore access to the profession must be broadly inclusive.

The Demographic Argument. The U.S. is becoming diverse along many dimensions and we expect (and hope) that the profile of GLBT lawyers and lawyers with disabilities will increase more rapidly. With respect to the Nation’s racial/ethnic populations, the Census Bureau projects that by 2042 the U.S. will be a “minority majority” country.

In February, 2010, the Journal of Academic Medicine issued a major report by Drs. Louis W. Sullivan and Ilana Suez Mittman on the state of diversity in the health professions. Typically, the rationales for diversity in medicine have emphasized that minorities are more likely to provide service to minority communities, that minorities improve communication, comfort level, trust, and decision making in the patient-practitioner relationship, and they improve the quality of advocacy in health policy reform. The evidence is compelling that a diverse medical profession contributes to greater equity and the elimination of health disparities. However, Drs. Sullivan and Mittman observe that traditionally the medical profession has defined the role for health professionals from underrepresented groups as a narrow and circumscribed one that focuses almost entirely on the needs of minority communities. They urge that future efforts re-frame the arguments and re-envision opportunities for minority health professionals to excel and to lead within the larger society. This Report’s recommendations share that aspiration and are grounded in the conviction that benefits from diversity flow to the entire society.

This Report’s recommendations reflect and incorporate the multiple experiences, false starts, insights, frustrations and new beginnings that represent the many different ways that diversity works within the different sectors of the legal profession. Each page incorporates the input of dozens of voices and localities; each page summarizes and synthesizes this multi-vocal and multigenerational dialogue about transforming the legal profession by making it more inclusive. The overarching message is that a diverse legal profession is more just, productive and smarter because diversity, both cognitive and cultural, often leads to better questions, analyses, solutions, and processes.

The Report includes a set of Emerging Issues, identified collaboratively by the scholars and the Practitioner Working Group members. These ten issues, culled from a longer list, provide short descriptions of new developments that will affect the ways in the legal profession responds to the challenges posed by understandable demands for inclusion, more complex personal and group identities, and a society under stress from increasing inequalities and international competition.

This Report is not prescriptive and is not a checklist of to-do’s for the profession. The Report is a tool to challenge assumptions, provoke curiosity, generate conversations, enable dissenting voices, and encourage new partnerships and coalitions. To echo President Obama, our task is to create “a more perfect union.” This Report documents the most recent step taken by the American Bar Association to do so.

2 Responses

  1. It is heart-warming to see that the ABA has, at long last, acknowledged the importance of diversity in the legal profession. Many of us recall the ABA’s history, from the 1930s, when it would not permit members of minority groups to become members of its organization. It is for that reason that “alternative” bar organizations developed. The newly-acknowledged value the ABA is now putting on diversity in the profession will, it is hoped, extend to innovative measures taken by law schools around the nation to help fulfill this mission.

  2. Thanks for the post! I didn’t know the final report had come out.

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