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Is Big Law's addiction to elite schools hobbling diversity efforts?

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REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

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  • Look beyond top law schools to hire Black associates, panel says
  • 'You have to come in with a real intentional sense'-Greenberg Traurig's Miami office co-head

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(Reuters) - If they really want to expand their ranks of Black associates, law firms should recruit from more schools, consider candidates outside the very top of their class and not wait for on-campus interviews to build relationships with diverse law students.

That was the advice from Big Law partners and law school officials during a discussion Friday on the recruitment and retention of Black lawyers—part of a day-long "Black Lawyers Matter" conference co-hosted by University of Houston Law Center, Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law, and the Law School Admission Council.

Law schools consistently fall short in helping Black students on the job market, said panelist Jim Leipold, executive director of the National Association for Law Placement.

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Over the past six years, the gap between white and Black law graduates landing jobs that require passing the bar exam averaged 18 percentage points, he said. Black law graduates consistently have the lowest rate of private sector employment, NALP data show.

“It’s impossible for me not to conclude that law schools have long had systems in place that preference and prioritize the employment outcomes of white graduates over Black graduates,” Leipold said.

To recruit more diverse associate classes, law firms need to look beyond the so-called T-14 elite schools - the top 14 law schools on the U.S News & World Report rankings - several panelists noted.

Prestige and ability don’t go hand in hand, said Anthony Upshaw, a partner at McDermott Will & Emery and the firm’s head of diversity and inclusion. He said McDermott’s Miami office recruits heavily from the University of Miami School of Law, the University of Florida Levin College of Law, and other local schools.

“We diversified the schools we recruit from and, most importantly, we diversified the recruiters,” Upshaw said. “Your OCI recruiters are, more likely than not, going to recruit people who look like them.”

Large firms also undermine diversity goals when they only consider law students in the top 10% or 15% of their class, said Howard University Law Dean Danielle Holley-Walker.

Competition for minority law graduates in that limited pool is stiff, and Holley-Walker said she has had to convince many legal employers that students with lower grades should not be dismissed outright.

Jaret Davis, co-managing shareholder of Greenberg Traurig’s Miami office, said firms that view recruiting as a one-time transaction will usually fail to meet their diversity goals. Greenberg Traurig, for example, hosts an annual pre-law recruiting event in Miami, where firm personnel meet students before they begin their legal studies.

“You have to come in with a real intentional sense, and a sense that you are going in for the long gig—that you are developing a relationship,” he said. “That, to me, is when you really get to know a candidate, beyond their GPA. I will tell you, that’s not easy.”

(This story has been updated to include a tweak to the headline.)

Read more:

New lawyer demographics show modest growth in minority attorneys

'Exclusionary and classist': Why the legal profession is getting whiter

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