Goal IX Newsletter

Winter 2001, Volume 7, Number 1

Florida Fiasco Graphically Reveals Status of Women and Minorities in the Legal Profession by: Charisse R. Lille and Deborah L. Rhode

“Heavy hitters to argue case.”

That caption accompanied a recent New York Times photospread of leading lawyers in the Florida election proceedings. The pictures featured thirteen white men. The lack of diversity in the lineup passed largely unnoticed, first by the Bush and Gore camps and then by most of the major media. In a Philadelphia Inquirer story, one of Charisse R. Lillie, Commission Chair the few news outlets to comment on the lack of diversity, a spokesperson for one of the campaigns explained that there had been no deliberate effort to include or exclude women or minorities. Rather, she noted, “we were just trying to get the best lawyers to do the job and we did.”

This explanation, and the lineup that prompted it, is a graphic reminder of progress yet to be made. Is it possible that out of the nation’s some 260,000 women lawyers and 100,000 lawyers of color, not one ranks as a “heavy hitter”? In a profession where women constitute almost 30 percent and minorities 11 percent of the membership, is it possible that none qualified to play a prominent role in the litigation? What message does it send when the only woman professional to figure prominently in the legal proceedings, Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, received almost as much coverage for her choice of lip gloss as for the merit of her decisions?

 It is scarce consolation to hear that no insult was intended. “We were just looking for the best” comes as an easy, familiar excuse. Law schools offered this excuse to explain why, until the late 1960s, their students and faculty were almost entirely white and male, and is the excuse many schools now offer to explain women and minorities’ persistent underrepresentation among deans and tenured professors. Leading law firms generally use this excuse to explain why fewer than 15 percent of their partners are women and fewer than 3 percent are minorities. It is the excuse of choice for why, in virtually every sector of the profession—in law schools, in courts, and in corporate counsel offices—women and minorities are underrepresented at the top and overrepresented at the bottom. It does not present the full story.

Rather, virtually every study has found that female and minority lawyers do not advance as far and as fast as their white male counterparts with similar qualifications and experience. Unconscious biases remain persistent and pervasive, as is apparent from a wide array of research summarized by the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession and Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession. Women and minorities are held to higher standards and are excluded from informal networks of support, guidance, and contacts. If these lawyers are not seen as “heavy hitters,” it is not due to their qualifications and experience. It is because they aren’t playing on an even field, and are seldom coached and recruited for the major leagues.

There are, of course, other explanations as well. Minorities are disadvantaged by pressure to assimilate mainstream cultural norms while maintaining their own cultural standards. Additionally, minorities often face inadequate access to economic and other resources. Women are disadvantaged by disproportionate family obligations and workplaces that fail to accommodate them. If we seek a legal profession that is truly representative of the communities it serves, we have a considerable distance yet to travel. The New York Times picture serves as a powerful metaphor for the progress that continues to elude us and the work yet to be done.

That is not to minimize the progress that has been made over the last two decades. There were at least some women and lawyers of color involved in the proceedings before Florida courts and the United States Supreme Court, which do have a diverse membership. The ABA has put issues of diversity at the forefront of its agenda, and that in itself is a sign of progress. Deborah L. Rhode

A similar commitment is needed at the national political level. As the candidate who ultimately prevailed, President Bush needs to make both the fact and appearance of fairness a high priority in presidential and judicial appointments. Equal opportunity under the law should be a commitment in practice, not just in principle.

Charisse R. Lillie is the chair of the ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession. Deborah L. Rhode is the chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession.