Volume 18, Number 6
September 2001


Quest for the "Qualified" Minority

By Sandra S. Yamate

Each fall, law firm recruiters go on a quest to bring back "qualified minority" law students as 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. 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 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. 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.

Accomplishing this quest requires an open mind. The open-minded approach necessary to achieve diversity requires an ability to see through the illusory smoke and mirrors of stereotypes and racism 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.

Furthermore, even if a firm successfully recruits a "qualified minority," there is a strong likelihood that the 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. However, when it is applied to non-minorities, the term "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.

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 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. 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 factors. 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. Whatever makes up the list, by structuring recruiting efforts to search for those attributes rather than chasing after "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.

Sandra S. Yamate is director of the ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession.

This article is an abridged and edited version of one that originally appeared on page 8 of Goal IX, Spring 2001 (7:2).

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