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Despite hits to hiring in general because of the economic downturn, major law firms across the country are under pressure to continue efforts to diversify their legal staffs.
"There's the case for doing it because it's the right thing to do, and then there is the case that it is good for business," said James Bourne, president of the Indiana State Bar Association. He has made increasing minority involvement a goal of his tenure.
"Our clients, especially large corporations, are requiring the law firms they work with to provide them with statistical information and encouraging the assignment of minority attorneys to their matters," said Alison Dreizen, partner in charge of diversity at White, Case in New York City.
That firm has about 1,600 attorneys, more than half of them in offices outside the United States.
The National Association for Law Placement's most recent study, released last fall, showed that 3.71 percent of minority attorney are partners in major law firms, an incremental increase from the previous year.
"The profession has not achieved its goal to have representation that equates to representation in law school classes," said Jerry Nash, deputy director of NALP.
He pointed to the June Supreme Court decision affirming the University of Michigan School of Law's admission policy, saying the focus on the front-end of admissions has a direct impact on the output into the profession.
With larger numbers of minority law students, "the hiring base is much broader, giving us an available pool of talent that inevitably leads to a greater mix," Dreizer said.
"It takes all kinds to make what we do work, in all legal markets around the world," she said.
Retaining attorneys of color is as crucial as hiring them. At White, Case, a new program randomly assigns a coach to every associate to answer questions and guide their careers. The firm organizes attorneys into small practice areas.
"It's harder to get lost in the crunch," Dreizen said.
Diversity training focused on law firms begins this fall at the leadership level.
"Experimentation helps each firm determine what is going to work best for them in retention," Dreizen said.
Indiana's Bourne was the driving force in a recent Diversity Summit. Managing partners from firms with 10 or more members, managers of corporate and government legal departments, deans of the state's four law schools and representatives of other bar associations in the state, including the three minority bar associations, attended.
Bourne's goals are twofold: to increase the minority representation in the state bar and to encourage greater participation from minority members who currently belong. Acknowledging and embracing the difference a minority person brings to the firm helps make minority attorneys more comfortable and get their careers on track, participants heard. Having a mentor, whether a minority or not, is important.
The economic downturn has reduced turnover as well as total hiring. Junior associates are staying in their first jobs longer.
"Firms are focused on having their classes be as representative as possible," Dreizer said. "It gives hope that in 10 or 15 years, we won't be talking about this subject."