Minority lawyers and law students should network through organizations that serve their interests.

By Delece Smith-Barrow

The proportion of African-American lawyers is on the decline at law firms, one report states.

U.S. News & World Report, December 8, 2015 — The law market isn’t an easy one to break into. In the last few years, it’s been especially challenging to get a job at a well-paying firm as a new J.D. grad, and minority lawyers often struggle more than others to do this.

The percentage of African-American associates at major U.S. law firms has declined each year since 2009, according to a November report from the National Association for Law Placement. It now sits at 3.95 percent.

Minority women are the most underrepresented group at the partner level – just 2.6​ percent in 2015. Hispanic law associates have slightly increased from 4​ percent in 2013 to 4.3​ percent in 2015. Asians represent nearly 11 percent of associates at major U.S. firms.

[Follow these tips for applying to law school as a minority applicant.]

“We kid ourselves if we don’t understand that the implicit and unconscious biases have an impact on peoples’ lives and careers. They do,” says Joseph K. West, president and CEO of the Minority Corporate Counsel​ Association. The association advocates for lawyers who are women, minorities or disabled, and lawyers who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. It also provides diversity training to all.

“We have funded research that shows that the work product, for example, of minority lawyers tends to be graded more harshly than the identical work product of Caucasian lawyers,” says West, a graduate of the Tulane University Law School. “And that bias exists even when the grader happens to be a minority.”

Experts say minority law applicants can take certain steps to better ensure they’ll have a promising legal career, no matter where they work. U.S. News spoke with West about what applicants of color can do to determine which school will best prepare them for the field.

An edited excerpt of the conversation is below.

How can applicants tell if the school they’re considering is going to prepare them for the realities of what work may be like?

It helps if the law school that you’re looking at has a very robust infrastructure to support the students and to support, particularly, diverse students and the needs that they have that are different and can be different from nondiverse​ students. That whole mentoring component is something that is critically important.

I think a lot of schools are starting to understand the value of practical courses, courses that really help prepare students for what the real world of practicing is going to be like. Whether it’s in areas that are quickly growing and have a dearth of minorities, like compliance and intellectual property and transactional areas. Or if there is a litigation-based​ program.

I think the two most important factors in my opinion: one, a supportive, nurturing, mentoring environment and an infrastructure that provides that type of environment. And number two: Some​ courses that lend more towards the practical and that can supplement the academics.

[Find law schools that value diversity.]

Should you look into the career services department if this is a school you’re considering?

I think that’s critical. One of the really, sort of, fundamental changes in our profession over the last two years is that, whether it’s real or perceived, there is the notion out there that there are far more lawyers than there are jobs available. And so it’s a competitive market. And I think you would probably do yourself well to at least investigate the career services of any school that you’re interested in going to.

Should minority law applicants aspire to work at a firm, in-house or for the government?​ Does it make a difference?

I think yes, as to whether or not you should have clearly defined aspirations, however, I think you should remain flexible and be willing to pursue opportunities where they present themselves.

Just about every lawyer I know, if you ask them to compare the career trajectory that they actually experience to the career trajectory that they had mapped out in their heads​ when they started law school, the two look almost nothing like each other. You certainly should have a game plan and you certainly should have some idea as to what you’d like to do and where you’d like to go. However, just about every career change that I’ve made was the result of an opportunity presenting itself to me that I hadn’t anticipated and had no idea would come my way. ​

Do you think where you go to school as a minority makes a difference? Whether it’s going to school in a diverse city, per se, as opposed to a more remote area where there might not be a lot of minorities?

I honestly don’t know the answer to that to be frank. The sum total of what you have to offer comes down to two things:​ One, it’s your skill set, your knowledge base – ​basically what you’ve learned. And the other thing is the network that you develop.​

A lot of young lawyers, a lot of students as well, spend a great deal of time on the first of those things and they should. ​It is critically important that you learn as much as you can and get as good as you can get at what you do. But it is also very, ​very important that you learn how to develop your network. I think it’s underappreciated and something that a lot of people take for granted until it’s too late.

[Get a mentor to help with law school applications.]

Any particular organizations you recommend for minorities to network?

Well obviously MCCA. I’m biased in that regard. But I think the major affinity bars all do a really good job with developing networking opportunities for the lawyers and students who associate with them. NAPABA, which is the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association. MCCA collaborates with NAPABA and is collaborating with NAPABA now on a research project. ​

The National Bar Association, which is the oldest organization focused on the needs of African-American lawyers. Hispanic National Bar Association has very robust programming as well geared towards Latinos. And there’s a host of other organizations as well. But you know,​ even student organizations.

A lot of people think,​ “Well, you know I don’t have time to get involved or develop my network.” Certainly, students should be judicious about their time, but I made contacts when I was in law school with people I met through the Black Law Students Association, through BLSA, who I still interface with and who I’ve done business​ with. So it’s important. It’s certainly something that people should not take for granted.

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