April 30, 2016 Articles

Diversity in Law: Who Cares?

Why Justice John Roberts's implications were wrong.

“I’m just wondering what the benefits of diversity are in [the classroom],” United States Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts pondered during oral arguments in Fischer v. University of Texas at Austin pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. Too often people pose a similar question about the benefits of diversity in the legal profession.

Historically, the legal profession has been one of the least diverse professions in the nation. It continues to be so, according to a recent survey produced by the American Bar Association (ABA). Some may think why it even matters for the profession to be diverse. What is diversity? What are the benefits of diversity in law?

The ABA defines diversity as “the term used to describe the set of policies, practices, and programs that change the rhetoric of inclusion into empirically measurable change.”

Diversity includes more than just racial or ethnic diversity. The concept of diversity encompasses all persons of every background, gender, race, sexual orientation, age, and/or disability.

Diversity has a different meaning to everyone, posits Chasity H. O’Steen, chair of the Florida Bar Diversity and Inclusion Committee Diversity. “People’s experiences and exposure to different situations inform their perspectives, perceptions, and beliefs. Fundamentally, people want to belong, be heard, and be understood,” says O’Steen.

According to the ABA, “racial and ethnic diversity in the legal profession is necessary to demonstrate that our laws are being made and administered for the benefit of all persons. Because the public’s perception of the legal profession often informs impressions of the legal system, a diverse bar and bench create greater trust in the rule of law.” And negative perceptions of the legal profession impacts the “public confidence in our system,” says Thomas W. Ross, Professor of Public Law and Government at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As such, enhancing diversity and inclusion is one of the ABA’s primary goals.

Again, the nagging question: Why does diversity matter? Beyond the public perception and confidence in our system, diversity affects “the quality of legal services and judicial decisions,” argues the ABA. “A diverse legal profession is more just, productive and intelligent because diversity, both cognitive and cultural, often leads to better questions, analyses, solutions, and processes.”

Further, the need for fair representation of citizens in the legal system is crucial and begins with a diverse population of attorneys and judges, says 2015–2016 ABA President Paulette Brown. “A demonstrated commitment to diversity and inclusion can be a key aspect of a law firm’s competitive advantage when it comes to recruiting and retaining talent and pitching certain clients. Clients receive the highest quality service when their legal teams are drawn from professionals mirroring the diversity of the marketplace,” says Tiffani Lee, partner at Holland & Knight, LLP.

The other rationale for promoting diversity in the profession is that the nation’s leaders typically come from the population of lawyers and judges, points out Justice O’Connor (Ret.). “In order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity,” continues O’Connor.

Beyond the perception of the justice system and representation of the public in the system, is the benefit of being able to “come up with more creative solutions,” argues Robin Wofford of Wilson Turner Kosmo LLP, who also serves as chair of the National Association of Minority & Women Owned Law Firms. “Their unique backgrounds help to ensure that a 360-degree approach is used to analyze each issue,” continues Wofford. “Having a diverse legal team helps to eliminate the possibility of bias affecting your final decision.” 

Moreover, “a group of diverse people working together to identify, analyze, and resolve issues ensures that those collective perspectives, perceptions, and beliefs are voiced, considered, and represented as part of any proposed solution,” states O’Steen. “This collaborative effort, though at times challenging or even contentious, builds confidence within the legal community that diverse opinions, thoughts, and proposals are respected, appreciated, and desired, which in turn encourages others to become involved and perpetuates an inclusive and cooperative environment within which members of the legal community can work and feel valued instead of feeling that their perspectives, beliefs, and perceptions, and those of the individuals and entities that they represent and serve, are not worthy of consideration and are not wanted.”

Knowing the value and benefits of diversity in the legal profession is important, but how can we achieve diversity in the profession? The ABA suggests that law schools must implement diversity plans, in which school leaders participate in the plan. “Diversity and inclusion education and training needs to start while future attorneys are in law school and continue during the practice of law. Legal organizations and associations need to continue to make diversity and inclusion a priority and promote efforts to encourage diversity and inclusion within their organizations, in legal practice, and in the judiciary,” argues O’Steen.

Despite the implication of questions similar to Chief Justice Roberts’s question about the benefits of diversity, there are countless benefits to having diversity in the legal profession. 

Keywords: litigation, benefits of diversity, Fischer v. University of Texas at Austin, Chief Justice John Roberts

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