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Attracting, keeping lawyers of color presents challenges for firms

By: Bridgetower Media Newswires//December 14, 2022//

Attracting, keeping lawyers of color presents challenges for firms

By: Bridgetower Media Newswires//December 14, 2022//

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By Dan Heilman
BridgeTower Media Newswires

A continuing dilemma for the Minnesota legal community seems to be making progress, but only in isolated steps.

The Minnesota Coalition of Bar Associations of Color (MN-CBAC) recently released its third annual study of the diversity and inclusion picture among Twin Cities law offices — public, private and in-house. The bottom line, as it has been in years past, is that attorneys and staff of historically underrepresented backgrounds generally aren’t drawn to come to this market — let alone stay in it.

The average for ethnic attorney representation among law firms in 2021 was 17%, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only three Twin Cities firms polled — Jones Day, Fish & Richardson and Greenberg Traurig — met or surpassed that figure. Jones Day led the way when it comes to Black representation at 6.4%, while Maslon set the pace on Latinx representation at 6.1%. Greenberg Traurig reported a 20% representation of Asian/Asian-Pacific employees.

The study points to the corporate sector as one segment of progress. The in-house legal departments of such companies as Prime Therapeutics, General Mills and Target passed that BLS benchmark. Companies including Xcel Energy, UnitedHealth and Ecolab fell short.

“I was excited to see the numbers on the corporate side,” said Mayura Iyer Noordyke, trademark counsel for Medtronic’s I.P. department, who worked on the study as a past president of the Minnesota Asian-Pacific Bar Association. “But a lot of the year-over-year trends are not dramatically different.”

“I appreciate the work done by the organizers,” said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi. “I think we need more of this type of effort when it comes to understanding how we’re doing hiring and retaining people of color in the legal profession.”

Public offices fared better than private firms in having attorneys of diverse backgrounds. The county attorney’s offices in Hennepin and Ramsey counties, as well as the District of Minnesota’s Office of the Federal Defender and the Minneapolis City Attorney’s Office, all reported racial and ethnic group representation of 19% or higher.

“It’s good to see that there are organizations that are advancing in this area,” said Choi. “I believe that today we have a more diverse pool of people to hire from. It’s heartening to see that there’s more diversity in law schools, here and nationwide, because that’s where it starts. The pool’s been expanding.”

“We’ve got pockets of highlights, but there’s still lots of work to be done,” said Noordyke.

Mayura Iyer Noordyke (from left), John Choi and Judge Tony Leung

Tony Leung, a U. S. magistrate judge for the District of Minnesota, helped the survey by inviting participation from larger public sector law departments in the area. He said change in law firms has been slow in coming.

“The law firm percentages of diverse attorneys have increased some over the decades, so that’s good,” he said. “The number of diverse equity partners in larger law firms, especially lawyers of color, however, is still terribly low in my opinion.”

Female representation in law offices also painted a more encouraging picture. Ten private firms could boast female attorney representation at or above the BLS average of 37.9%, with Stinson and Nilan Johnson Lewis leading the way at 50%. At the public level, the county attorney’s offices in Hennepin, Ramsey, Anoka and Dakota counties performed above average when it came to female representation.

“While we’re seeing some gains in female representation, representation of ethnic and racial groups among Minnesota based lawyers represented in the study lag much farther behind,” said Leung. “Only half of the corporate and public organization legal departments in the study meet or exceed the national average for ethnic attorneys according the BLS for 2021.”

Noordyke said that the questions submitted to respondents haven’t changed much in the three-year history of the MN-CBAC study. The ad hoc group that administrates the survey has rotating chairs.

Apart from the industrywide problem of finding and keeping legal staff from underrepresented backgrounds, there’s the nature of this market — i.e., Minnesota, which is not famous for open-armed welcomes extended to transplants.

“There is certainly some truth to that,” Noordyke said. “I know people who have moved here for school or work, but left after a few years because they haven’t been able to create the same ties that might be key to wanting to stay.”

“It does play a role,” agreed Choi. “It can be a struggle to deal with the culture of our state. It’s not about people of color adapting to the predominant culture, it’s about recognizing that the predominant culture can be harmful. We tend to want people to assimilate into the culture that already exists.”

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