Goal IX Newsletter

Spring 2001, Volume 7, Number 2

Quest For the "Qualified" Minority by: Sandra S. Yamate

Each fall, like the Knights of the Round Table seeking the Holy Grail, law firm recruiters go forth on a quest to bring back “qualified minority” law students as Sandra S. Yamate prospective summer associates or new associates for the following fall. Those who are ultimately judged “qualified” then get a taste of the fine art of recruiting in a manner rivaled only by recruiters for exceptionally talented athletes. They are wined, dined, flattered, and cajoled not only for their promise as lawyers but also in the pursuit of racial diversity.

Some of the law firms that engage in such recruiting are motivated by clients or prospective clients who, more and more frequently, insist that their outside counsel be racially diverse and specify that lawyers of color be assigned to some of their matters. For other firms, the quest is inspired by altruism; they have decided that diversity is the right and proper course of action to pursue. Some join the quest because they recognize that a racially diverse law firm will be better able to survive and thrive in the future. After all, a diverse firm has a far broader base of potential clients and other contacts such as public officials and policymakers, judges, civic and community leaders, and the media. And still other firms, unconvinced that any actual benefits may accrue, nevertheless pursue diversity because their competitors are doing so.

The pressure to recruit “the qualified” is intense and made more so by the fact that so many of those judged “qualified” in previous years have departed for other employment opportunities. The quest, therefore, is a deadly serious one that rises almost to the level of a competitive sport among firms in some cities.

Accomplishing this quest regardless of motivation requires far more than the pure heart of a Sir Galahad. It needs the wisdom and boldness of Arthur, the bravery and determination of Lancelot, the compassion and empathy of Guinevere, and the perception and foresight of Merlin. Indeed, while the Holy Grail required only a pure heart, the diversity such firms pursue requires all these qualities plus an open mind. That is something far easier said than done, for even the most open of minds may harbor unrecognizable or unacknowledged prejudices and stereotypes shaped by individual values and experiences.

The open-minded approach necessary to achieve diversity requires an ability to see through the illusory smoke and mirrors of stereotypes and racism—overt, subtle, and institutional—to recognize and accept that any quest for “qualified minorities” who will diversify a firm is doomed almost from its start. It is doomed to failure simply because it reveals a mindset predisposed to evaluate minority candidates with a greater or lesser degree of scrutiny and skepticism. By the very act of attaching the description “qualified,” it presumes and presupposes that minorities are not qualified. In view of such a negative attitude, it is small wonder that such quests more often than not fail.

Furthermore, even if a firm successfully recruits a “qualified minority,” there is a strong likelihood that that individual will eventually leave the firm. This may be in part because the very attitude that perpetuates the need to distinguish “qualified” minorities from minorities in general will likely translate into a firm with a less-than-hospitable atmosphere for lawyers of color.

 The Meaning of “Qualified”
When applied to lawyers of color, the term “qualified” is usually used as a code for graduation from a name law school, top or close to the top class ranking, academic honors, or significant journal experience. It rarely includes or makes exceptions for work or life experience, natural talent, interest and aptitude, or determination. Less commonly, when it is applied to non-minorities, however, being “qualified” tends to expand to include all of the above plus personal background and lifestyle, personal and professional interests, and familiarity. In those cases, being “qualified” clearly is the result of the viewer’s being open-minded enough to look beyond a limited number of criteria and imagine a candidate’s potential based on demonstrated interests, achievement, and personality. And, when those things are similar to our own or our friends’ interests, how much easier it is to imagine that potential.

The expanded definition offers latitude to search for and recruit talented lawyers; by applying only the more restricted definition to lawyers of color, the quest for diversity becomes unnecessarily more difficult. But, stimulating the open-mindedness necessary to allow for applying a far more expansive definition of “qualified” remains a significant challenge for all those in the legal profession who are aware of the term’s misleading nature when applied to candidates of color. It is the challenge of willful ignorance: Every lawyer knows at least one other non-minority lawyer—and probably more— who could not possibly have measured up to the criteria being used to assess candidates of color yet managed to survive and even thrive as a practicing lawyer. Every law firm has such lawyers. It is an invisible double standard, and it is the crux of the problem of minority recruitment.

This does not mean that current diversity efforts or efforts to recruit lawyers of color will automatically fail. Indeed, the reality is just the opposite. Once employers drop the “qualified” label applied to candidates of color and begin to evaluate prospective candidates open-mindedly, they often discover a more realistic chance at achieving diversity. Nor does it mean discarding or lowering standards. It is simply acknowledging what those criteria and standards really are, in an honest and straightforward fashion. What they really are may have little to do with alma maters, class ranking, or grades and more to do with aptitude, talent, diligence, commitment, mentoring, and personality— along with social or familial connections, training in form as well as substance, and confidence bred from familiarity and experience.

Consider the lawyers in any given law firm. They are not all graduates of Ivy League or top-20 law schools. Not all of them graduated at or near the top of their law school classes; many did not earn honors, and quite a few never worked on a journal. Nevertheless, their peers find them satisfactory if not better-than-average lawyers.

Consider the very top lawyers at that firm. Use whatever criteria seem most reasonable; top may be based on client control, profitability, celebrity, a particular skill, an area of knowledge or expertise, seniority, or myriad other reasons. Regardless of the criteria applied, specific law school, class rank, law school honors, and journal experience tend to be unreliable indicators of future law firm or law practice success.

Evaluate Prospective Hires on Aptitude and Potential
It behooves law firms that are seeking greater diversity to learn to evaluate prospective candidates on the basis of aptitude and potential, measured less by the candidate’s alma mater and more by achievement. A firm that chooses to value (or dismiss) graduates of certain schools or those with certain credentials based on past experience is acting reasonably, given the finite time available to recruit candidates. But it is the rigid application of such standards that undermines a firm’s quest for diversity, rather than a lack of qualified minority candidates.

Also, bear in mind that one person does not make a pattern. The fact that one lawyer of color did not work out means nothing more than the lawyer did not work out. Specifically, the fact that one lawyer of color did not work out is a shortsighted or narrow-minded reason to avoid or hold to more stringent requirements other lawyers of color who may share an alma mater, a cultural background, certain life experiences, or other circumstances with that lawyer.

The firm that wishes to be more racially diverse, whatever its motivation, need only adopt a realistic strategy to do so. No practical standards need be sacrificed. Indeed, they may carry more weight. Analyze the attributes that are highly valued in a lawyer judged to be excellent. Technical expertise? Good people skills? Creative thinking? Persuasive writing? Oratorical flamboyance? Golfing ability? A passion for Italian opera? Whatever makes up the list, by structuring recruiting efforts to search for those attributes rather than chasing the fallacious rainbow (pardon the pun) called “qualified minorities,” a firm will more likely get a broader pool of acceptable candidates. In that pool will be lawyers and law students of color who manifest the desired and truly important attributes.

This expanded pool of candidates is also more likely to produce recruits who might even remain at the firm for years, if they possess attributes highly prized and rewarded by the firm. As one firm that has been consistently successful in recruiting and retaining lawyers of color notes, “We look at all sorts of candidates and make offers based upon their attributes. For example, if someone is actively involved in extracurricular programs, that suggests this person is socially active and outgoing and likely will already be building relationships to assist in business development. Someone with a passion for moot court may already be exhibiting the makings of an excellent appellate lawyer. These attributes are far more revealing and reliable predictors of success in our firm than law school rankings and grade point averages. It works for us.” It likely would work for other firms, too.

The quest for “qualified” minorities is an exercise in self-defeat. It is not a new quest and has never proved particularly successful. Surely it is time to discard it and recognized that a lawyer of color may be as competent or incompetent as any other member of the profession. But just as we presume that non-minorities are competent unless they prove otherwise, the same presumption needs to be extended to lawyers of color. Firms that do so will find diversity a far less elusive goal. Success speaks for itself.

Sandra S. Yamate is director of the ABA’s Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession. This article is based on an article entitled “Recruiting Lawyers of Color for Dominant Culture Organizations,” by Sandra S. Yamate, originally published in the May 1999 Chicago Bar Association’s CBA Record. The Commission wanted to republish this article based on the importance and timeliness of the topic.

Back to this issue's Table of Contents

Advertisement