New Report Shows Drop in Law Firm Minority Lawyers and Recruiting: What Does it Mean?

A recent report by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association and Vault.com found that minority student recruitment slipped over the last year, while minority lawyer attrition at law firms was somewhat higher than for non-minority peers.  The decline was especially pronounced in summer associate programs, as a proportion of all summer associate positions.  That’s disturbing, not only because summer associate programs are the major feeder mechanisms for initial law firm jobs, but also because large law firms are market drivers for the remainder of the legal employment market.

It’s possible that the decline was simply a random variation but it surely bears watching, especially if you’re a member of a minority group thinking about law school or are already in law school.  Moreover, if the decline is not random, it’s important whether or not the rumored rebound of summer associate programs comes to pass.

The report itself and news stories reporting on the decline hypothesize that the recession is to blame.  I’m not sure why this would be the case (the recession seems to account for everything lately, whether or not the causal chain is clear).  To confidently blame the recession would require making a lot of assumptions that, in truth, neither I nor anyone else has any business making without some supporting hard data.

Besides, Advise-In’s focus with its clients is practical, so the reasons for the decline don’t matter as much as what a minority applicant or student should do in light of the data that is available.  Indeed, it really isn’t so important for practical purposes whether the falloff is a statistical anomaly or not—what you should do is pretty much the same.

Law school applicants first.  I’ve talked a few times on this blog about the need for law school applicants—before they commit to significant debt and cash outlays for law school in general, or to an individual school—to have clear data on the employment law school graduates obtain that are both truly informative generally and are especially relevant for the individual applicant.  Current public data is thin and unhelpful, and you and your advisors should spend a good deal of time and effort deciding what information will be most helpful for you to make a truly informed choice between law schools (and indeed, in determining whether law school is the best option for you right now), and formulating strategies to obtain it.  I work closely and hard with my private clients to do this.  Here’s a link to the last post on these topics (which includes links to other posts), so I won’t repeat what I’ve said before about the paucity of current publicly-available data, examples of what you might want to know and how to find it out.

However, the MCCA/Vault report is a reminder that any applicant should be as specific as possible about those strategies and inquiries.  If you’re a member of a minority group, you should focus on collecting and analyzing not only the general information that every applicant should try to obtain but also tailor your inquiry to law schools to focus on information relevant to your demographic cohorts (whether racial, ethnic, gender, age, veteran, religious observance, some combination of those or other cohorts).

I understand that this can be uncomfortable.  For applicants who don’t want to be seen as a member of a specific group, here’s the unfortunate thing—somewhere along the way, someone else (perhaps in a decision-making role) will classify you along demographic lines, so it’s best to know what the likely outcomes of that classification are likely to be.  Other applicants are nervous that they’ll offend law schools by asking clearly defined questions.  I think that’s not generally a great concern—there are tactful ways of finding out what you need (nobody’s suggesting you shouldn’t be Minnesota-nice).  Law school admissions personnel worth their salt will view these kinds of inquiries for what they are—part of a process to decide where to invest significant cash, debt, time, and career satisfaction.  If a school is prickly about answering straightforward, polite questions, then like an investment firm that wants to take your investment money without being clear about how it’s going to be invested, maybe it’s just not the best organization for you to throw in with.

As a second-career law school applicant, it became clear to me, for example, that some very highly-ranked law schools (3 of the top 12, at the time) were not well-designed to be responsive to specific issues that at least one older student—me—had.  That wasn’t intentional (far from it), it wasn’t mean-spirited, it didn’t make them (or me) bad people or the schools not excellent, it just meant that those schools weren’t my best option.  I didn’t burn any bridges but I also didn’t pursue those applications.  The same went for some very prestigious law firms with whom I interviewed.  Gathering demographic-specific information isn’t any different, in principle, from gathering any other relevant information (there were other reasons why other schools and legal employers weren’t my best choice).  When you’re talking about a six-figure monetary outlay and several years of your life, just to go to law school, your happiness and comfort level are paramount.

For people already in law school who are interviewing with any legal organization (whether or not a firm), the practicalities are a little different but the motivation is the same—you’re about to make a heavy commitment, and you want to make the best one for you.  You will want to find out core data about members of your demographic group who have worked at that organization—what the hiring patterns have been, whether (in light of the MCCA/Vault report) those patterns have seen significant annual variance, in what proportion they’ve been promoted, how long they’ve remained, where they’ve gone afterward, etc.

Some of that information can be found in public sources but there will always be additional questions you’ll want answered (that’s what interviews are for) on the basis of what you already know.  Regardless of the questions you want to discuss, you and your advisors should, before any interview, determine when it’s right to ask which questions, how to ask them and who the best person to ask is.  Some questions are better asked at one stage of an interview process, some at another.  And there are always better and worse people to discuss certain matters with.  In other words, you and your advisors should develop an overall strategy, and think tactically about how to implement it.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on October 6, 2010.

One Response to “New Report Shows Drop in Law Firm Minority Lawyers and Recruiting: What Does it Mean?”

  1. […] a sharp decline in law firm diversity (whether or not the recession is the cause is a topic we’ve taken up elsewhere), and The National Law Journal reported a decline in the demand for legal services in the third […]

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