Talking about diversity in law firms often feels like déjà vu. We talk about finding talented, diverse candidates; competing with other firms to attract this limited resource of talent (all the while limiting the denigration of our peers, hopefully); welcoming the new recruits with great enthusiasm; trying innovative ways to include them into firm culture; and lamenting their almost inevitable departure to clients, competitors, or other professions. Rinse, lather, and repeat.
While speaking on the topic of diversity at the Thomson Reuters Law Firm COO/CFO Forum last month, I, along with fellow diversity leaders from top law firms and one large corporate law department, carried the torch for firms to find new ways to change the narrative on how legal departments can further diversify their ranks. While all on the dais spoke eloquently about the initiatives at their firms and institutions—and some opened my eyes to new ways to try and attack the problem—we spent precious little time talking about the supply side of the equation.
In the legal recruiting business—in which diversity plays a large role—we frequently talk about the “top of the funnel.” That phrase is usually a euphemism for the number of students who decide to interview with each individual firm on campus. But in the diversity discussion, there is another important funnel which deserves our collective attention.
At present, the pool of qualified candidates of color remains limited. While we have largely solved the problem of having a large pool of female student candidates from which to choose, the numbers of student candidates of color continue to lag substantially behind. Most firms have made expansive efforts to attract racial minorities to the top of their firm’s funnel; however, perhaps firms should pay more attention to the top of the law schools funnels and engage in “pipeline initiatives” to attract more diverse students to pursue legal careers.
As a collective or through their individual efforts, law firms have the power to fuel pipeline initiatives through inspiring underrepresented college, high school, and even middle school students in their respective markets to consider law school. At Jones Day, we work with the Just The Beginning Foundation’s Summer Legal Institute (JBTF), as an example, to pique the interest of high school students in the law as a future profession. My firm annually hosts local high school students for a negotiations seminar in our Washington, D.C. office to introduce them to that one important aspect of legal practice. The theory being that each student we reach to consider law school, even before college, will increase the number of candidates of color we will eventually see seeking professional opportunities in our firms and corporate legal departments.
JBTF is not the only organization that tries to inspire underserved populations’ pursuit of a legal career. The Hispanic National Law Foundation sponsors students to participate in its “Future Latino Leaders Law Camp,” which allows roughly 40 high school age Latino/Latina kids, who are competitively selected, to come to Washington and receive hands on experience in moot court competitions and exposes the participants directly to the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. While not all of its alumni matriculate in law schools, the results have been extremely promising.
Pipeline programs are just one piece of the legal diversity mosaic, but without them the picture is not complete. While firms will continue to battle over the best available diverse legal talent across the land, devoting some time to increasing the number of diverse students from which to select from may be the key to accelerating the laudable pursuit of a more diverse legal community.
M. Carter DeLorme is a partner in the Labor & Employment practice of Jones Day, in the Washington, D.C. office. His practice focuses primarily on defending companies, in both bench and jury trials, against equal employment opportunity, wage and hour, trade secret, and restrictive covenant claims in federal and state courts across the country. Carter also is the Chair of Jones Day’s Firmwide Diversity & Inclusion Task Force. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.