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Report shows drop in number of women, ethnic minorities at law firms

A lot of work still needs to be done in recruitment, diversity advocates say

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While the legal industry is all about boosting diversity, the overall statistics remain unimpressive. In fact, according to a report by the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession (IILP) — a nonprofit formed in 2010 to advocate for more diversity in the profession — ethnic minorities and women’s representation among law graduates has dropped in recent years, with minorities representing 16.6 percent of all attorneys at surveyed firms (down from 18.1 percent), and women comprising 35.3 percent of attorneys (down from 36 percent).

It is safe to say that San Diego’s performance in the diversity area mirrors the IILP nationwide study.

“The statistics relating to women and minorities in firms is quite frankly appalling,” said Renee Galente, a partner with Galente Ganci APC, a recently formed downtown San Diego law firm. “Though great steps have been taken over the past decades, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done before we reach equal representation.”

Despite the grim statistics, efforts are being made locally to foster diversity. The San Diego County Bar Association and the Association of Corporate Counsel have developed a diversity fellowship program — created in response to the low number of diverse attorneys practicing law in San Diego County firms and corporate legal departments — which provides an opportunity for first-year law students to learn and develop skills necessary to be successful in law firm and corporate legal department environments.

Many area law firms are also endeavoring to boost their diversity levels, and some are doing so through innovative events and initiatives.

“Our firm is active in women and minority recruitment,” said Adam Stock, director of marketing and business development of Allen Matkins. “We believe that being in our community in a very visible way is the strongest way to support our recruiting efforts.”

According to Allen Matkins’ Managing Partner David L. Osias, the firm takes a holistic approach to diversity.

“Only through a diverse workplace will our firm have access to the best clients and most talented attorneys to best serve clients,” he said. To that end, “we actively engage with the communities that we serve by supporting activities that are important to our clients, attorneys and potential recruits.”

As an example, Allen Matkins participates in various minority job fairs and outreach events for minority law students, is active in education and sponsorship of programs such as the California Minority Counsel Program, and supports organizations such as the Legal Aid Society.

The firm even recently created an event for judges, attorneys, law students and high school students from East Los Angeles, where they could meet with, as well as learn the life story of, Justice Cruz Reynoso — the first Latino California Supreme Court justice.

“While this was not a pure ‘recruiting’ event, it says a lot about the way that our firm approaches diversity and community,” Stock said.

According to James Lance, a partner with Kirby Noonan Lance & Hoge LLP, his firm is working hard to hire and promote female attorneys.

“We believe it is important that we continue to add qualified female attorneys,” he said. “We were very pleased to add a female partner last year, when one of our associates, Micaela Banach, become a partner in January 2011.”

In fact, Lance said when the firm decided to hire two associates later in 2011, Banach was asked to take the lead in recruiting efforts.

“She brought a new perspective to the process and helped us address issues which were important to female candidates when considering employment with a medium-sized litigation firm. Although we interviewed many qualified men and women, we ultimately hired two excellent female attorneys.”

Casey Gerry partner Frederick Schenk said his firm is also committed to the recruitment of women, as well as minorities.

“Casey Gerry is an annual benefactor of Lawyers Club of San Diego and has always supported the hiring of women attorneys and minorities,” he said.

“We have two female partners, and the last four attorneys we have hired have all been women, including one who is bi-lingual.”

Casey Gerry’s newest partner is Wendy Behan, a former associate who was promoted to partner last year. A past president of the Lawyers Club of San Diego — a nonprofit organization whose mission is to advance the status of women in the law and society — Behan believes that one way to empower women and minorities is to help bolster their careers through mentoring.

Mentoring enables an attorney to have an advocate, a powerful confidant who can provide important insight, support and advice.

“Exclusion from networks and lack of mentoring are significant stumbling blocks to career advancement for many minority attorneys,” Behan said. “Many larger firms have tried to effectively tackle this issue by implementing a variety of mentoring programs, among them mentor-mentee programs, mentoring circles and group mentoring.”

In addition to the mentoring programs that many big firms offer, nonprofit organizations such as the Lawyers Club and the Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles, as well as law schools, offer mentor/mentee programs for both career attorneys and law students who would like guidance and career advice from senior attorneys.

Galente, who is also active in Lawyers Club and a member of San Diego La Raza Lawyers, says she is involved in mentoring by supporting student organizations, including the Women's Law Association, Outlaw (LGBT), and La Raza Student Organization. “We work on a daily basis to help promote and advocate for these students that may not fit the cookie cutter candidate,” she said. “These students have exceptional strength of character and it is really our honor to help them succeed.”

According to Galente, another important minority in San Diego is the LGBT community. “I sit as a local Steering Committee member for the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest LGBT civil rights organization. It's so important to mentor young minds there to surpass the stereotyping and bullying with that group.”

Galente said diversity is a cause she is passionate about, and has made it a core part of her firm’s growth strategy. “If not me, then who?” Galente said. “We can't just keep expecting other people to lead the changes we want to see when it comes to increasing diversity in the legal profession.”

-Moore is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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1 UserComments
Lindsay 11:20am May 4, 2012

Who says that firms are "all about boosting diversity"? While firms may make an effort to hire minorities and women it also takes a commitment to retain these attorneys. During the recent recession when layoffs were rampant, it were the women and minorities who were disproportionately let go. Year after year yhe Lawyers Club equality survey shows that firms hire women and minority attorneys, but these attorneys are not making partner or advancing in proportionate numbers. The legal profession needs to take a hard look at why that is and focus on making changes the cure retention and advancement problems. Only then will I believe they are truly "all about boosting diversity."