The Pipeline and Generational Change – By Roger Juan Maldonado

Roger Juan Maldonado is President of the New York City Bar Association

A generation ago, the New York City Bar Association significantly intensified its efforts to increase diversity in the legal profession, and in the City Bar itself. In 1984, the City Bar’s Committee on Minorities in the Profession was formed, and its members networked with minority bar association members and encouraged them to join our association.

After Sheldon Oliensis became City Bar President in 1988, he met with every major Wall Street law firm to stress the importance of diversity, and oversaw the creation of the Committee to Enhance Professional Opportunities for Minorities. The members of that committee, chaired by Cyrus Vance, Sr., were all top executives of 35 major law firms. Their drafting subcommittee, chaired by Arthur Liman, produced a “Statement of Goals of New York Law Firms and Corporate Legal Departments for Increasing Minority Hiring, Retention and Promotion,” a forerunner of the Statement of Diversity Principles that lives on the City Bar’s website today and is currently signed by over 160 law firms and corporations, with more signatories joining.

In the late 80s and early 90s, the City Bar also focused on getting its own house in order. The election of Conrad Harper as its first African-American President was a watershed moment in diversifying the Association. Toward the end of his term, the Executive Committee issued a policy whose words carried an exhilarating weight at the time, stating that the City Bar “is committed to a policy of inclusion and diversity with respect to the composition of its staff, its membership, the chairs and members of its committees, and its officers,” and that “the Association does not discriminate against any individual because of such individual’s actual or perceived race, color, creed, religion, national origin, gender, age, marital status, sexual orientation, disability, or alienage or citizenship status.” 

What followed was progress that was steady, if slow. Law firms stepped up and created Diversity committees. Different stakeholders committed the resources needed to implement programs designed to increase diversity in the profession. The City Bar’s launched its Office for Diversity and Inclusion in 2006 to formalize the Association’s work to diversify the profession.  Other bar associations focused on diversity as well. I’m pleased to note that over the past several years, the City Bar’s Executive Committee members have been roughly 50% female and 40% from historically underrepresented groups. And I personally urge all committee chairs to embrace diversity when creating committee rosters and to utilize the resources of our Offices of Diversity and Inclusion and Committee Engagement as part of that process. Above all, within the profession, widespread acknowledgement of the lack of diversity in our profession and the collective desire for solutions reached something of a critical mass with the 2018 implementation of a Diversity, Inclusion, and Elimination of Bias (D&I) CLE requirement for experienced attorneys. 

And yet, the City Bar’s research currently reveals disappointing data showing slow ascension to leadership and elevated attrition rates for attorneys of color. “After decades of slow but seemingly steady advances in diversifying the profession, progress for Black/African American and Latinx lawyers, in particular, has appeared to stagnate or, based on recent trends, regress,” states a recent report by the City Bar’s Legal Education and Pipeline Task Force.

On the surface, this is confounding if we believe that in 2019, the effects of lingering unconscious bias notwithstanding, most firms understand not only that diversifying is the right thing to do, but that it’s good for business, and that a lack of diversity is in fact a liability in today’s world. As the report states, “[t]here are numerous examples of general counsel, whether minority or not, who inform their outside law firms that diversity performance will be a factor in the business relationship with the law firm.” 

This alarming data led the Task Force to conclude that there just aren’t enough minority candidates entering and progressing through law firms, and that the student pipeline needs dramatic improvement. Consider that, according to data gathered by the ABA and laid out in the Task Force’s report, while law school enrollment of white and Asian/Pacific Islander students tracks with their share of the general population (roughly 60% and 6% respectively), Latinx students represent 12.5% of law students compared to 18.1% of the general population, and Black/African American students represent 7.9% of law students compared to 13.4% of the general population. A recent study states that 49% of black applicants did not get into any law school to which they applied.

In sum, by the time of law school, for certain groups the die is already cast. In fact, the Task Force found “serious breaches at the pre-professional level that disproportionately affect Black/African American and Latinx students who might otherwise be candidates for the legal profession” and that numerous challenges exist for these students “in developing the right skills to pursue opportunities in the law, becoming exposed to opportunities, and in finding programs to support their interest in the profession.”

Therefore, we must reach back and cultivate future lawyers at a much younger age. How much younger? Finding that educational deficits can begin as early as age four, the City Bar recently urged elimination of Competitive Admissions to Elementary and Middle Schools in New York City, writing that “awarding and denying academic opportunity based on the ‘academic’ performance of children four to nine years old is ‘inequitable’ in a public school system” and measures of ability and behavior through competitive admissions of children that young are “more likely to reflect characteristics of a child’s parents and past experiences than his or her future potential, and are unreliable, and racially biased.”

It falls to us and other bar associations, whose memberships are made up of the leaders of the profession, to take the lead on the work of strengthening the pipeline to ensure a diverse legal profession. We have a strong foundation to undertake this work. Already, our Office for Diversity and Inclusion, together with the City Bar’s eight Diversity Cluster Committees, run effective pipeline programs for high school, college, and law students. These include the Thurgood Marshall Summer Law Internship Program for high school students, the Launching Your Career Series and LSAT Prep Conference for college students and recent graduates, and the Diversity Fellowship Program for first-year law students.

The next step, I believe, is to go out and increase engagement with fellow stakeholders – the schools, government agencies, the courts, and the nonprofits that are already in the schools – to connect pipeline and other programs in a system that parents, teachers, and students can access. Students need to know what programs are out there and how to connect the dots as they go from elementary school to middle school to high school to college. We need to find that third grader who, once exposed to the idea of being a lawyer or a judge, will eagerly take the steps required at each inflection point to achieve that goal. 

With a seed grant from the New York Community Trust, the City Bar will begin to build partnerships and engage with pipeline programs in the city.

On the policy front, the Task Force’s report, which is titled “Sealing the Leaks: Recommendations to Diversify and Strengthen the Pipeline to the Legal Profession,” recommends that we add to the City Bar’s Statement of Diversity Principles a commitment to support pipeline initiatives; advocate that pipeline-related courses, trainings, and activities be eligible for diversity and inclusion CLE credit; and encourage employers to credit an attorney’s pipeline-related activities similar to how they credit pro bono work. 

Above all, we need to get more lawyers and their firms and organizations to embrace the pipeline, to go into schools to enlighten kids about our judicial system and its place in our Constitution, about the supremacy of the rule of law within our democracy, about how precious and precarious rights and ethical norms are protected in a healthy society, and why a career in the law and becoming a steward of our justice system is a noble path to pursue. 

As it stands in 2019, we are at a moment when we need to convey these principles and values to all young people. That’s why, as a companion effort to the pipeline work, the City Bar will partner with multiple stakeholders, including other bar associations, in an effort to reintroduce and enhance civics education in schools. Look for more on this, and opportunities connected with it, to come.  

As the City Bar approaches the 150th anniversary of its founding, we are compelled and inspired to think generationally. Let’s engage the next generation to ensure that the legal profession reflects the world around us, and to quicken the pace toward an ever more just society.