Minority hiring in legal firms still a far fetched dream.

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After a number of years of small but steady incremental growth, minority representation among new associates is essentially in a holding pattern - and graduation rates of minority law students are in retreat.

Attorneys who identify themselves as black, Asian/Pacific Islander, American Indian or Hispanic represented approximately 8 percent of starting associates in 1993, according to the National Association for Law Placement (NALP). By mid-2001, that figure had risen to over 13 percent, NALP said.

Despite that increase, the percentage is nowhere near the 30 percent minorities are expected to represent in the total U.S. population in 2010, according to Census Bureau projections.

Two trends are particularly threatening to the growth of diversity in law firm ranks. For the first time since 1985, the number of minority law school graduates dropped in 1999 from the year prior. And, once minority grads obtain employment, their attrition rates at firms are substantially higher than white associates. No data is currently available on where these associates go, but apparently many leave private practice for other jobs both in and out of the legal field.

Virtually everyone in the equation - law firms, law schools, minority student organizations and national, state and local bar associations - have called for increasing the number of minorities in the profession. Several initiatives have been proposed on all levels, with varying degrees of success. The issue remains, however, one on which every firm confronts an individual level.

"Each year we do more as we learn more," said Sharon Bowen, a partner who chairs the diversity subcommittee of the recruiting panel at Latham & Watkins in New York. Bowen said the firm has become more proactive, participating in road shows for minority student groups, underwriting and sponsoring events put on by those groups, sponsoring the Minority Corporate Counsel Association and participating in community outreach programs to foster interest among minorities in a legal career. Domestically, Latham & Watkins has 138 minority associates among its 806 U.S. attorneys - 17.1 percent compared to the 13.7 percent national average.

David Love, a second year at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, authored an article in The Philadelphia Tribune last November decrying the shortage of minority partners in law firms. He noted, however, that some Philadelphia area firms have made strides in addressing the diversity issue, specifically citing the firm of Stradley, Ronon, Stevens & Young.

Melissa Lennon Walsh, director of associate development for the 160-attorney firm, said that its success in expanding minority representation is more a reflection of commitment than any particular programs.

"We've been able to apply normal standards and hiring criteria with a special focus overall in increasing our minority hiring," Walsh said.

The firm also supports the Philadelphia Diversity Law Group, a coalition of law firms and corporate law departments dedicated to the promotion of minority hiring. Walsh pointed with pride to the fact that of Stradley Ronon's nine new associates in 2001, five were minorities.

And the efforts come from the student side as well through the National Black Law Students Association, which had its first national job fair last year, inviting around 15 law firms. It will repeat it this spring, according to its chairman, Steven Holeman, who is completing a J.D. and Master's in Political Management joint degree at Regent University School of Law in Virginia Beach, Va. Holeman said firms need to back up their verbal commitments to diversity with action.

"I would tell them, 'Don't just talk about it - be about it,'" Love said. "I have seen some desire to diversify, but a lot of progress needs to be made in that arena."

Latham & Watkins' Bowen would no doubt agree, but she has a personal benchmark that indicates her firm, at least, is making progress.

"I can remember when I could tell you all of [the firm's minority associates] by name," Bowen said. "Thankfully I can no longer do that."

This story appeared in the March 2002 edition of The National Jurist, nationaljurist.com.

Latham & Watkins LLP.

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