To African-Americans in the legal profession, the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession’s first review of the state of diversity in the profession held few surprises, if any. Released late August, the review shows the legal profession persistently lagging with snail-paced progress in diversifying; that a serious problem exists in the pipeline, despite numerous programs, studies and individual efforts to effect change in the representation of diverse groups in the profession; and that minority lawyers take different career paths from that of their white counterparts. “Past efforts to increase diversity in the legal profession have been sincere but not inclusive enough … not ambitious enough … not robust enough,” the Institute says in its mission statement.
Those words describe a reality that informs the No. 1 task of Joseph “Joe” West, Esq., the new president and CEO of the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, a national organization concerned with advancing the hiring, retention and promotion of diverse attorneys in legal departments and the law firms that serve them. Speaking to The Network Journal at the association’s Diversity Honors [Gala, a red-carpet affair in September at Alice Tully Hall in New York City’s Lincoln Center, West said, “My number- one task is to find ways to provide value and support to diverse lawyers, both in corporate legal departments and in external firms — not just large f irms, but small, minority and women-owned firms as well — making sure we can keep people and give them opportunities for advancement.”
Aside from “shrinking resources,” what makes that task challenging is “probably the recognition that although firms say they are committed to diversity, they haven’t really done a good job of retaining diverse lawyers,” said West, who previously was associate general counsel at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and senior litigation counsel for Entergy Corp.
In the same vein, MCCA co-founder Anthony K. Greene, a director at insurance brokers Herbert L. Jamison & Co. L.L.C., worried that there will be fewer resources to support diversity in the legal profession as the profession restructures — and shrinks — in the fallout from the economic downturn. “The impact is still manifesting itself,” he told TNJ. “When money is tight, some companies feel diversity is one of the … they may reduce. Diversity is a talent issue. If you don’t have the best talent, you can’t succeed. If corporations must be efficient, how can they be so without the best talent? [The MCCA’s] work is more important now than before. The challenge is having to do that work with less.”
According to the IILP review, African- Americans are the legal profession’s bestrepresented minority group — at a whopping 4.7 percent — but their entry into the profession has slowed in recent years. Against this backdrop, we profile five attorneys who made it to the top of the profession, despite the odds against their getting there.