Bryan Browning, Shareholder at Bassford Remele based in Minneapolis, is one of the almost 20 strong members of the Advisory Board of the Next Gen Leadership: Advancing Lawyers of Color (NGL: ALC). His career journey into law was a little unexpected. He starts his story with the fact that it is not unique to the Latino community: He was the first person in his family to graduate college and earn a law degree. As a kid, he pictured himself working in a blue collar job alongside his dad; but as he moved into his early teen years, he recalls feeling “directionless” — a commonality among attorneys of color because they less often have the background, upbringing, culture, and community of people around them that lead to working in professional settings.
However, Bryan’s parents had bigger plans for him because they “stressed the importance of having knowledge and being able to stand up and speak for myself.” As he moved into his teen years, his parents encouraged him to seek out opportunities and supported his decision to attend college.
Hispanic Bar Association Provided Foundation of Support
At university, like many students of color, Bryan’s professors where instrumental in shaping his career in the law because some told him he demonstrated promise as a litigator with his enjoyment of engaging in debate. His early experience at the University of Minnesota Law School was difficult. He recalls on the first day of orientation, classmates were discussing the firms at which they wanted to work after graduating, and Bryan had not heard of many of these. Lacking the knowledge and exposure of what it takes to succeed in law school and to work as a successful lawyer were isolating for Bryan. In his words, he felt completely behind.
Fortunately, Bryan connected with the mentorship program of the Minnesota Hispanic Bar Association (MHBA) and credits this decision as the “smartest thing” he has ever done. That mentor showed him the ropes on “networking and learning the ins and outs of the legal community” and most importantly, helped him “feel more connected to the Latino community in the Twin Cities.” Indeed, the MHBA gave him the support system he needed, especially during his first year of law school when he felt homesick and alone. “I can’t stress enough the importance of having that MHBA mentor my first year in law school — that made everything that followed possible,” Bryan says. “Otherwise, there was probably a high likelihood that I would have fizzled out and not be where I am today.”
The Challenges of the Latino Attorney Pipeline
Bryan, who worked at two other firms before landing at Bassford Remele, knows that as a Latino partner, he is a unicorn in some ways because most from his community do not make to the top ranks of the legal industry. In fact, representation of Latinos within the partnership ranks is less than 2%, which stands in stark contrast to the Latino population in the United States, which is fast approaching 20%.
Bryan is the first Latino partner in his firm’s 136-year history; and as he was advancing, he admitted the journey was particularly tough. Making it to partner for any lawyer in any firm is hard because of the demands of the job, including long hours, travel, and the constant need to generate new business. However, for attorneys of color, it is extra taxing on personal well-being, Bryan says. “It’s draining to operate in a profession where you might not always see someone who looks like you.”
He uses his own personal story to illustrate the struggle that Latino lawyers have in breaking through to partnership. “My firm has been around since 1882 and I made partner in 2017,” he observes. “I’m the first Latino partner in the firm’s history, and I am incredibly proud of that — but I’m also a little sad about that because it underscores the difficulty for Latino lawyers to advance.”
More broadly, Bryan notes that the challenges for increasing Latinos in the law starts long before law school, and many times, the challenge involves a lack of access, resources, and role models.
Role Models in Leadership are Critical for Retention
It is critical for lawyers of color to have role models in leadership where “they can see themselves,” Bryan says. “That person looks like me and they have succeeded. That person has come from similar a background and circumstances, and now they are established. And if they can do it, I can do it.”
For example, Justice Sonya Sotomayor’s appointment to the Supreme Court had a tremendous impact on the Latino community, he says. Justice Sotomayor made it to the highest levels of the US justice system, breaking through numerous barriers after growing up in humble beginnings and learning English as a second language in her youth. “We had an event here with her in Minneapolis that featured more than 100 middle and high school students,” Bryan says. “They had the opportunity to meet with her, participate in a town hall conversation, and ask questions of a Supreme Court Justice. The looks on their faces and the realization that she is one us” was astounding and uplifting.
Bryan’s passion for advancing the pipeline of Hispanic lawyers is self-evident before he opens his mouth because of his numerous community commitments as a “Big Brother,” a tutor to underserved students, his volunteer leadership within the Hispanic National Bar Association, and now as an Advisory Board member for NGL: ALC. “Within the affinity bar associations there is a significant desire to reach down and help out as many people as you can in your community.”
Guidance to Legal Employers: Increase Your Organization Introspection
Legal employers need to improve upon recruitment, retention, and promotion, Bryan says. While the recent numbers of Latinos enrolled in law school and those from the Hispanic community serving as entry-level lawyers are moving positively in the right direction, the challenge lies in retention and promotion. The attrition rate of diverse attorneys is disproportionally high compared to that of other attorneys.
Retention is multi-faceted, and Bryan thinks firms need to do a “better job taking an introspective look at who we are, what are we as a culture, what we have to offer, and how we make sure that we understand what our young attorneys need because they are all not the same — the needs are not uniform.” Specifically, Bryan highlights the fact that most of firm leaders who are making decisions about firm culture, firm dynamics, and firm policy all look the same, with similar backgrounds, upbringings, and understandings.
“Those policies are going to be skewed or tilted to that worldview or that scope of understanding,” Bryan observes, adding that with mostly homogenous individuals in leadership positions in the legal profession, it is not surprising that the needle really has not moved with regards to diverse attorneys in the industry.