Pipeline Programs Enhance Diversity Efforts in the Legal Profession

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By Roy S. Ginsburg, JD

During the past three-four decades, achieving diversity in the legal profession has been the goal of many within, as well as outside, of the profession. If you google the terms “diversity” and “legal profession,” there are over a million and half results. Many of them describe the efforts of the American Bar Association (ABA), numerous state and local bar associations, law firms, corporate legal departments, law schools, court systems and others to increase the number of minority and women attorneys.

Progress has certainly been made for both groups and much of it is likely attributable to those efforts. However, few would deny that progress has been somewhat stalled, especially for minority lawyers. African-Americans make up 13.4% of the U.S. population, but less than 4% practice law. Latinos comprise 14%, but only 3.3% practice. The statistics in private law firms are even more discouraging. According to the Association for Legal Professionals (NALP), only 6% of partners at firms are minorities and a mere 2% are minority women.

The future looks even bleaker when one looks at demographic trends. The percentage of minority law school graduates has remained relatively constant over the past decade at around 20%. Yet according to the U.S. Census Bureau, by the year 2042, minorities will constitute a majority of the population in the U.S. In other words, in almost 30 years, our country will be a “majority minority” one. If law school graduation of minorities does not increase significantly during that time, the legal profession will become even less representative of the diverse communities that it presently serves.

“Pipeline” efforts are the newest trend within the legal profession’s diversity realm to address this issue. Pipeline programs are designed to reach out to minorities early and throughout their educations. Because of long standing socioeconomic inequalities, there are many “leaks” in the pipeline that create an insufficient number of minority college graduates with in interest in pursuing a legal career. Some examples of leaks include:

  • Minorities graduate from high school at lower rates that whites
  • Those minorities who do graduate from high school are less likely to attend college than whites
  • Once in college, minorities are less likely to graduate on time when compared to whites
  • The test score gap between minorities and whites begins as early as elementary school and continues throughout college and graduate levels

Once in law school, leaks continue. Law students of color have a disproportionately lower application, enrollment and graduation rate than whites.

A substantial number of potential minority law students are lost as a result of the leaks. Pipeline programs are intended to plug those leaks.

The ABA has studied this problem and in its “Collaborating To Expand the Pipeline” report, has identified three strategies to tackle this difficult and persistent problem. They include:

  • Breaking down institutional and systemic barriers that impede the educational success of minorities
  • Developing meaningful mentoring and networking opportunities for minorities
  • Providing quality academic assistance to minorities

Barriers

Perhaps the biggest barrier is insufficient funding for education and it usually exists throughout the pre-K - 12 levels. Suggestions by the ABA include:

  • Implementing special programs designed to inspire at-risk students to stay in school
  • Providing career awareness services to encourage students to consider law as a career
  • Design law-related workshops, mock trials and debate programs, or other activities that expose students to a variety of aspects of the legal system
  • Offer college preparatory coursework and standardized test preparation

Furthermore, at the college level, minorities need to have a better understanding of selecting proper courses, as well as intensive LSAT preparatory classes.

Mentoring and Networking

Programs are needed throughout the pipeline continuum that enable minorities to develop and sustain relationships with mentors and role models. These individuals can then help minorities stay focused on their goals. In addition, they can provide introductions, recommendations and access to their networks. Other means where mentors can help include:

  • Workshops that encourage students to make positive life choices
  • Activities such as job shadowing, that provide students with exposure to the legal system
  • Job interviewing workshops

Academic Assistance

Educational support is crucial to achieve higher graduation rates and standardized test scores. Such assistance can take the form of:

  • Tutoring services in core academic subjects and test-taking skills
  • Summer school programs
  • Extra-curricular activities
  • Career planning services

Stakeholder Groups

Just as the initiatives noted above are numerous and varied, so too, are the providers of them. They include:

  • Schools, school districts and state education agencies
  • Parents, guidance counselors, mentors, PTOs and PTAs
  • Community colleges, universities and law schools
  • Law school minority student organizations
  • Local, state, national and minority bar associations
  • Law firms and corporate legal departments
  • Judiciary
  • Local, state and federal agencies
  • Private foundations

The Importance of Collaboration

While the ABA has identified institutional barriers that pipeline programs need to break down, pipeline efforts, in and of themselves, face a major barrier. That barrier is the failure of individual program leaders to collaborate with one another. Put simply, the left hand at times, has no idea what the right hand is doing. It is not unusual to find communities with a wide variety of programs addressing the issues noted above, but their efforts are not sufficiently coordinated in any formal or informal manner.

Collaboration is a must. As an initial matter, it is important to ensure that the programs do not duplicate efforts or even worse, trip over one another and impede progress. Furthermore, when efforts are collaborated, leaders may be able to identify opportunities where working together can jump-start certain types of initiatives. Under certain circumstances, one plus one could equal three.

More fundamentally, the pipeline is a continuum of efforts that span almost twenty years during the life of a theoretical minority youth who hopefully will enter the legal profession. No component of the pipeline can be truly successful unless earlier components were effective. If one link in the chain breaks, earlier efforts may have been wasted. In order to make sure the chain remains unbroken, pipeline program leaders need to first, make sure that efforts exist throughout the continuum. Moreover, there needs to be a smooth transition among the initiatives. Handoffs need to be carefully planned or there will inevitably be fumbles. The only way to ensure a winning game plan is through collaboration.

Collaboration is easier said than done. One would think that since all pipeline efforts share the same goals, collaboration should not be problematic. In reality, it is. While the overall goal may be common, the underlying motivating factors driving the individual pipeline efforts may differ. Furthermore, resources and expectations will vary from initiative to initiative. Human nature is such that it is far easier for leaders to build walls around their programs than to share resources and information with others. In short, collaboration can feel threatening and stressful to some program leaders and supporters. Instead, collaborating parties need to set goals together when appropriate and develop trusting relationships. This is no easy task, but imperative if pipeline programs are to work effectively.

Show Me the Money

Finally, it should come as no surprise that funding of all pipeline efforts can frequently be challenging, especially in this uncertain economy. Predictable funding sources are crucial, but more difficult than ever to find both in the public and private sectors. Moreover, while projects routinely rely on volunteers, most programs require some paid staff in order to maintain continuity and momentum. In order to sustain adequate funding, all collaborators must place a high priority on educating communities and funding resources of the benefits of pipeline diversity efforts and a diverse legal profession as a whole.

Reasons to be Optimistic

If you google the terms “legal profession,” diversity and pipeline, more than 200,000 results appear. Work is being done, but there remains plenty to do.

 

ROY S. GINSBURG is an attorney, CLE provider, and attorney coach. He provides services to individuals and firms from offices in Minnetonka, Minnesota. He can be reached at roy@royginsburg.com.

 

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