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Outgoing ABA President Carolyn Lamm Discusses Next Steps to Achieving a More Diverse Legal Profession

On July 30, 2010, Vault and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA) held their 5th Annual Legal Diversity Career Fair at the Renaissance Hotel in Washington, D.C. More than 1,000 law students and lateral associates registered for the event, where hiring partners and recruiters from some 30 law firms, government agencies and corporate law departments were on hand to meet with candidates, review their resumes, offer advice and answer questions.

The event kicked off with a special breakfast where Brian Dalton, Vault’s managing editor, unveiled the company’s 2011 Law Firm Diversity Rankings, the result of Vault’s annual Law Firm Associate Survey. Vault also honored the Top 20 law firms—led by this year’s overall winner, Carlton Fields—who were the most highly rated by their own associates for their commitment to hiring, retaining and promoting diverse attorneys.

The event’s lunch featured Carolyn Lamm, outgoing president of the American Bar Association and a partner at White & Case, as the keynote speaker. Recently named one of “Washington’s Most Influential Women Lawyers” by The National Law Journal, Ms. Lamm has, during her tenure as ABA president, established a Presidential Commission on Diversity as well as a Commission on the Impact of the Economic Crisis on the Profession and Legal Needs. On August 10, 2010, Ms. Lamm turns over the helm to President-Elect Stephen Zack, a partner at Boies, Schiller and Flexner and the first Hispanic American to serve as ABA president. 

Before her address, Ms. Lamm sat down with me to discuss the state of diversity in law firms, highlight some of the ABA’s goals and initiatives, and forecast what a truly diverse profession will look like.

VAULT:  How would you characterize the state of diversity in the legal profession today? 

In a word: evolving. In 2009, the ABA conducted an extensive national assessment of the state of diversity in the legal profession, including hearings held around the United States—with practitioners, academics, corporate counsel—whose results were synthesized into a report, “Diversity in the Legal Profession: The Next Steps.” We found that, although our profession today is more diverse and inclusive, and has made significant advances, many obstacles to free and equal professional success remain. For example:

  • While women make up just over half of the U.S. population and half of the entering classes in law schools, they represent one third of the lawyer population, about 18 percent of law firm equity partners and 20 to 25 percent of the judiciary.  
  • Racial and ethnic minorities make up approximately one third of the U.S. population, but they represent only 10 percent of the lawyer population, less than 16 percent of judges and 6 percent of equity partners.

These numbers do not nearly reflect the diverse range of talent in our profession. Our lack of diversity runs counter to the promise of fairness and equality that is our profession’s bedrock, depriving the community of a bench that reflects the community and of legal advice that is a product of diverse views.

VAULT:  What are the principal challenges to increasing diversity at law firms?

First, through what are known as “pipeline programs,” we need to get more racial and ethnic minorities into law school. We must do all we can to encourage young people of all backgrounds that a career in the law can be fulfilling, and that we welcome them to the profession. Through educational and scholarship programs, we must make it easier for qualified people of diverse backgrounds to pursue legal careers.

Then, once people enter the profession, we must work on retention. An ABA report from the Commission on Women in the Profession, titled “Visible Invisibility: Women of Color in Law Firms,” revealed startling realities about the experiences of women of color, including anecdotal evidence that nearly half of women of color have been subjected to demeaning comments or other types of harassment while working at a private law firm (compared with only 2 percent of white men reporting the same experiences). A substantial number also report being passed over for desirable work assignments, being excluded from networking opportunities, and having received at least one unfair performance evaluation. These and other disparities allow us to better understand why women of color have a nearly 100 percent attrition rate from law firms at the end of eight years.

Another challenge facing law firms—especially those that have been addressing diversity issues for a while now—is to evolve from the traditional idea of diversity to understand and embrace inclusion. Diversity basically speaks to the numbers: proactively doing things to increase the numbers of diverse persons in the firm. While that is absolutely essential, it’s not enough. We now must focus on building inclusive work environments that demonstrate that we value diverse perspectives and understand how they benefit the organization overall.

VAULT:  Has the current state of the economy further exacerbated these difficulties? 

Yes. The ABA’s “The Next Steps” report found that the “recession is drying up monies for diversity initiatives and creating downsizing and cutbacks that may disproportionately and negatively affect lawyer diversity—thereby undoing the gains of past decades.”

The American Lawyer’s annual report on diversity confirmed the anecdotes that have been voiced throughout the legal community. Its 2010 Diversity Scorecard reported that for the first time in 10 years the proportion of lawyers of color has decreased, based on a survey of the country’s 200 largest firms. While big firms lost 6 percent of their attorneys between 2008 and 2009, they lost 9 percent of their minority lawyers. Some experts fear that this could be the start of a new downward trend, given a climate of slower law firm hiring, fewer African-American and  Mexican-American law students, and law firm layoffs.

VAULT:  Where are you seeing the most improvements?

Both the quantity and quality of pipeline diversity programs have improved in recent years. The ABA, in collaboration with the Law School Admission Council, has an online Pipeline Diversity Directory. In the past year, the number of entries in the directory has almost doubled and it now includes over 400 programs across the country that work to improve diversity in the educational pipeline to our profession, such as the judicial clerkship program.

Collaboration is another area of noted improvement. More firms, bar associations, law schools, corporate law departments and other groups are pooling their resources and building partnerships to address diversity and inclusion. 

VAULT:  Tell us about some of the ABA’s diversity initiatives and goals.

Nearly all entities throughout the ABA work to foster greater diversity in the legal profession. The ABA’s Center for Racial and Ethnic Diversity is a centralized resource for many of these activities. Within the Diversity Center, there are three groups that each addresses a distinct area:


In addition, the Commission on Women in the Profession works to secure the full and equal participation of women in the ABA, the legal profession and the justice system. The Commission on Mental and Physical Disability Law addresses disability-related public policy, disability law, and the professional needs of lawyers and law students with disabilities. The Commission on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity seeks to secure for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons full and equal access to and participation in the ABA, the legal profession and the justice system.

This year I appointed a Presidential Commission on Diversity, which produced the “Next Steps” monograph. The report gives recommendations for next steps to increase diversity in the different sectors of the legal profession, recognizing the different challenges within each one: law firms and corporations, the judiciary and government, law schools and the academy, and bar associations. The commission is working with the ABA’s existing efforts to provide practical resources and guidance for women lawyers, lawyers of color, disabled lawyers, and lawyers of differing sexual orientations and gender identities to help pierce the glass ceiling. Central to the commission’s efforts is a series of distance-learning CLE programs to help diverse lawyers advance their legal careers. The programs are available on the ABA website as podcasts.

VAULT:  What do you think about the reporting of diversity metrics and rankings, such as the Vault/MCCA Diversity Survey and Vault’s Diversity Rankings, as a means of encouraging law firms to step up their commitment to hiring, retaining and promoting diverse attorneys?

It can be an effective tool if it is used properly and in conjunction with other tools and incentives, and if it is transparently done. If reporting on diversity metrics or rankings is used only to prod and push law firms to engage in diversity  efforts, those efforts will not be sustainable. But we must know the statistics in order to know where we are and where to devote resources in order to move forward. If we can help more firms understand the value diversity brings to every aspect of their operations, metrics and rankings will become a welcome opportunity to showcase how well they are doing with hiring, retention and promotion of diverse attorneys.

VAULT:  How do diversity-focused events like this career fair help advance diversity objectives?

So much of hiring involves networking and word-of-mouth referrals—hardly just help wanted ads. In such a difficult job market, it is great to bring excellent candidates together with organizations that want to hire from diverse candidate pools. It’s important for employees and employers to get out there, network and explore career options—face to face whenever possible. Events such as these are especially useful when employers are hiring out of a regular recruiting schedule. But even if such leads don’t lead directly to job placements, they form the basis of career exploration and ideas that can, and do, produce results.

VAULT:  What will success look like? 

A diverse profession that reflects our community. A diverse legal profession is more just, productive and intelligent, because diversity often leads to better questions, analyses, processes and solutions. We are committed to see a Supreme Court that reflects our population and a profession in which each lawyer, no matter what their gender, racial or ethnic background, sexual orientation or disability, has the opportunity to achieve all they are capable of.

The only way we will see success is if our profession is a true reflection of our communities—even if it’s one person in one position at a time.

© 2020 Inc. National Law Review, Volume , Number 224



About this Author

Vera Djordjevich, Vault, Director of Research
Director of Research

Vera Djordjevich is the Director of Research and Consulting at Vault. She is a former litigator and holds a JD from New York University and an AB from Stanford.