Lawyers Journal

Promoting diversity in the legal profession

Interns getting advice from their coach Brett Carroll, right, of Holland & Knight LLP: (left to right) Karlantoine Balan, Feyisara Olotu, Cassandro Joseney, Miriam Sopin-VilmÈ, and Jennifer CarriÛn.
At the Boston Lawyers Group Annual Job Fair Reception for Law Students of Color on Sept. 9, were (left to right) Sophia Yen, student from Boston University School of Law; Marijane Benner Browne, hiring partner from Bingham McCutchen LLP; and Nick Davila, student from New England School of Law.
David Hall (left), professor at Northeastern University School of Law, and Boston Lawyers Group Chairman Peter Rosenblum visit during a Boston Lawyers Group event.
Retention and advancement are the keys to increasing diversity in Boston's legal community, according to one local group committed to assisting and developing the careers of attorneys of color.

"The challenge is getting the leadership in law firms to keep diversity as a high priority," said John D. Hamilton, Jr., who recently retired from Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP and as chairman of Boston Lawyers Group for the last eight years.

The Boston Lawyers Group (BLG) was founded in 1986 as a consortium of local law firms dedicated to making the legal community in Boston a reflection of the city itself by recruiting, developing, advancing and retaining attorneys of color.

Today, BLG's membership has grown to include more than 35 prominent legal organizations, including two minority law firms and a number of public sector entities, including the City of Boston Corporation Counsel, the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office, the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office and the United States Attorney's Office, as well as major corporations including Bank of America (formerly FleetBoston Financial), Fidelity Investments and John Hancock Financial Services, Inc.

According to Hamilton, the biggest obstacle to attracting attorneys of color to Boston "is the continued lingering trace of the reputation of Boston that developed in the '70s. It is hard to eliminate entirely."

"The challenge is getting a critical mass of attorneys of color, and professionals of all sorts, so that the attorney has a larger community of professional people of color, allowing people to enjoy their family and personal lives as well as their professional careers in Boston," Hamilton said.

Peers agree that incoming chairman Peter Rosenblum, co-managing partner of Foley Hoag, has the energy and commitment to increase BLG's momentum.

"He is very much on top of the issue of keeping diversity within the firms and will be aggressive in capturing the attention of his counterparts in other firms. That is one of the reasons he was chosen: he seems quite comfortable doing that," said Hamilton.

Increasing diversity

In 1985, the year before BLG began its work, attorneys of color made up 2 percent of the attorneys in Boston. Statistics for BLG members are confidential, however, according to National Association of Law Placement surveys, in 2004, associate attorneys of color made up 12.22 percent of the attorneys in Boston, 15.06 percent nationwide. This number has increased from 1999, when only 8.61 percent of Boston associates were of color, and only 12.06 percent nationwide.

Carolyn Golden Hebsgaard, executive director of BLG, says there have been "incredible" changes in the recruitment and hiring of minority law students since the founding of BLG in 1986.

"As part of our work, we have created a number of opportunities for members to come together with students, individuals in the pipeline, and just by creating those ways in which they are exposed to talent of color has created opportunities to hire and retain attorneys of color," said Hebsgaard. "Our programming tries to hit every conceivable aspect of hiring, recruiting and advancement."

First, BLG expands "the pipeline" of students of color interested in going to law school. They offer outreach programs to college students and formulate internship programs within member firms. During their internships, the students participate in mock trials and legal writing programs to get a better sense of what lawyers do.

At the law student level, BLG conducts a series of outreach programs in Boston, New York, Washington, D.C. and Chicago called "Charting Your Legal Future." Students have an opportunity to talk with practicing lawyers about all aspects of the job. In Boston, BLG sponsors a mentoring program for first-year students, as well as mock interviews and job fairs

For summer associates, BLG assists in relationship development by offering a number of programs to connect the students within firms and in the city.

Once graduated and employed by a firm, BLG organizes a reception for first-year associates. In addition, BLG has developed an associates' advisory committee which has been charged with developing programming that might be helpful, such as panel discussions with practicing attorneys in the Boston area.

"I truly enjoy going to a firm and finding that a first-year student from three years ago is now a first-year associate in one of our member organizations. That keeps the juices flowing," said Hebsgaard.

"It is extremely rewarding to see that your work has value, you are creating some legacies that will support a lot of who you are and what you believe. You have something to look back to and know there is strength for building a future in this community," she added.

Retention

As part of its commitment to promoting diversity, BLG's executive committee places an equally strong focus on the retention and advancement of attorneys of color to complement its recruiting and hiring initiatives.

"It should be expected that people will migrate out of law firms," said Marijane Benner Browne, BLG's new vice chair and national hiring partner at Bingham McCutchen. "If we retain attorneys of color within the community in a variety of other related legal fields, we are broadening community generally. But in context of large law firm, we would like to see that mirror society at large. Large firms are then much better places because people with diverse backgrounds can serve clients better; they can look at a problem from different perspectives."

Browne offers a three-pronged approach to promoting retention: First, encourage mentoring relationships. Second, when assigning projects, make sure attorneys of color are getting same types of opportunities to get good work, to develop skills, to have exposure to clients and to learn how to interact with them. Third, during the evaluation process, make sure there are mechanisms in place to ensure appropriate feedback, even if it is negative feedback.

And to promote advancement for attorneys of color, Browne suggests thinking of ways people can connect within the firm and in the broader community, such as creating opportunities to work on networking and professional development skills.

A large part of Browne's challenge is fighting the "myth of meritocracy."

"People really do believe that, because we are a meritocracy, that those who do the best quality work will inevitably succeed," Browne said. "What we are trying to do is boost the dialogue beyond that to recognize that people may be starting from different places and there may be impediments. The trick is to get beyond some of those artificial impediments and connect with all the people within our organization."

Wendell Taylor, of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP, is an "alumnus" of BLG's outreach programs. He readily admits that he had reservations about moving to Boston to study and practice law. In fact, Taylor had lived in Boston in the 1970s, so he had firsthand knowledge of the racial tensions in the community.

"(But) BLG helped me realize that attitudes in city had changed enough to allow me to maneuver within the city, to be comfortable professionally and socially," Taylor said.

Taylor confirms the value of BLG's mandate.

"BLG serves three purposes: the opportunity on regular basis to get together to see a large community of color practicing in Boston, which provides comfort," he said. "It provides contacts at both firms and organizations in the city who can provide mentoring and business opportunities. And it shows the city is committed to addressing diversity within the city."

Expanding the program

According to Hebsgaard, "there's an historical perspective about Boston that often surfaces, but I think that if you look at national statistics, America has a lot of work to do with creating an environment in legal communities as diverse as they could or should be."

To that end, Hebsgaard has taken BLG's show on the road. Long recognized for its commitment and effectiveness by legal recruiters out of state, BLG was approached by several legal interests in Connecticut to organize a similar program there.

Operating on the same model as BLG, Hebsgaard has organized a Connecticut coalition consisting of 32 members in its first year.

"I'm excited about the work because Connecticut is different than Boston," she said. "It's only 90 minutes away but they are two different communities. Boston has more law schools to draw on, but the issues are the same when it comes to awareness and responsibility for the goals of the organization."

"BLG as a single entity hires no one, but it is our privilege to be able to take the commitment that is made by participating members to the community, throughout the country, wherever there might be talent of color, to let them know that the commitment exists and have them take advantage of this," she added.

©2014 Massachusetts Bar Association