Law firms must recommit to achieving the goals of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) to combat recent challenges to longstanding efforts to diversify the profession, according to panelists at the 2023 ABA Virtual Equity Summit.
Legal experts on “The Changing Landscape of Affirmative Action” panel said law firms are the next group to be targeted by anti-affirmative activists following the Supreme Court’s decision in June against Harvard College, which banned race-based affirmative action programs in college admissions. In fact, since that decision, lawsuits have already been filed against law firm fellowship programs — intended to increase diversity in the profession — by Edward Blum, whose group won the case against Harvard. Blum’s lawsuits have caused several firms to change the criteria for their fellowship programs.
“There are some entities and people who are truly only giving the DEI front lip service,” said John K. Pierre, chancellor of the Southern University Law Center, part of the historically Black Southern University System in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “We have to determine those who are part of the coalition of the willing versus those who are just going to be giving lip service.”
Pierre said a firm’s financial well-being also plays a role in its commitment to diversity.
“Those entities that recognize that people of color are part of their economic well-being will be more apt to defend what they’re doing because it’s a business-case use,” he said. “It’s about the business and the economics of it.”
Annie Lee, managing director of policy at San Francisco-based Chinese for Affirmative Action, said despite the Harvard decision, there is still much colleges and universities can do to advance educational equity, including “reimagining and retooling admissions policy in higher education that ends legacy admissions and preferences for sports like squash and lacrosse and crew that overwhelmingly favor white and wealthy students.”
Expanding recruitment efforts and building robust pipelines and outreach initiatives by institutions are still permissible under the law, Lee said, adding that colleges also should support students who are already on campus by creating affinity groups to make them feel they belong.
Lee said her organization is challenging the ACT and SAT tests as requirements for admission to college.
“In California, we know that going test-free is a way to increase underrepresented minority groups at our flagship universities,” she said.
Lee added that more emphasis and time should be placed on community colleges, where the majority of students of color are enrolled.
“There’s so much emphasis on Harvard,” she said. “The vast majority of our students are in community colleges. Nationally, 51% of Hispanic undergraduates, 42% of Asian undergraduates, 40% of Black undergraduates and 39% of white undergraduates are enrolled at community colleges. If we care about educational outcomes for our students, we need to put money in our community colleges.”
Torey K. Dolan, a member of the National Native American Bar Association Board of Directors, was also a panelist for the program, which was moderated by Juan R. Thomas, of counsel to Quintairos, Prieto, Wood & Boyer P.A.
The two-day summit was sponsored by the ABA Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisory Council and ABA Continuing Legal Education.
- ABA Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Center: Affirmative Action Resources
- ABA Labor and Employment Law Section: “Impact of SCOTUS Affirmative Action Ruling on Employers”
- ABA GPSolo: “Affirmative Action in Higher Education: Relevance for Today’s Racial Justice Battlegrounds”
- ABA Journal:
- “Second BigLaw firm changes diversity fellowship after changes by first lead to suit dismissal”
- “The goal of DEI is not without legal risk for corporate America”
- “Activist who succeeded in ending affirmative action targets law firms' diversity efforts”
- “Demographics as destiny: Making the case for law firm diversity and inclusion”