Panelists Decry Continued Lack of Diversity in Legal Profession

Panelists, including Melanie Breaux L’07 and Rufus Caine III L’10, expressed dissatisfaction with the rate of progress on racial equity in the legal profession during a webinar hosted by the Law School’s Future of the Profession Initiative. They pointed to powerless diversity officers, the lack of compensation and opportunity to book business, and a shortage of minority partners as symptomatic of the problems.

During the webinar titled “The Future of Racial Equity in the Profession,” fellow panelist and high-profile trial attorney Don Prophete discussed a call to action he issued in a letter to general counsels, asking, “Will they again provide my people of color scraps and meaningless amounts of work or will they step up and offer real and lasting change? Do you hear the chimes of the changing times? Will you stop your complicity in the asphyxiation of black legal careers? Right now is the time for action. Please, no more shallow excuses.”

The letter was his attempt to convey his disappointment and anger at the profession, said Prophete, a partner at Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete LLP. Breaux, Associate Counsel at Vanguard and Co-Lead of the firm’s Diversity Committee, moderated the panel discussion, which, in addition to Prophete and Caine, Vice President of Burford Capital, included journalist Vivia Chen and Ulrich Stacy, CEO of the Diversity Lab.

Racial Equity “summons the vexing and frustrating efforts to advance a more inclusive culture that harnesses the talent of all attorneys,” said Jennifer Leonard L’04, the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School’s Chief Innovation Officer and Executive Director of the Future of the Profession Initiative, in introducing the program.

“My letter was more of a challenge to general counsels of color and those who are white to stop with the same policies and processes and to really put some elbow grease behind these issues,” Prophete said. “Law firms have now co-opted diversity. They hire chief diversity officers with no power and no budget, and they have no decision making on who’s hired. They have no decision making with respect to equity in the firm.”

An empowered partner is one with a portable, robust book of business. If you’ve got that, you’ve got not just a seat at the table, but you’ve got … a say in the firm’s culture.”
Rufus Caine III L’10
Vice President of Burford Capital
He said his firm doesn’t have a chief diversity officer. “We believe the mission is everyone, we don’t need a chief diversity officer to tell us,” Prophete said.

The practice of law is principally a business, Caine said, in agreement with Prophete. Caine said there has to be a focus on creating more minority-empowered partners, with attention on origination credit and succession planning.

“An empowered partner is one with a portable, robust book of business. If you’ve got that, you’ve got not just a seat at the table, but you’ve got a real say in hiring decisions. Firing decisions. Who becomes partner and who doesn’t? You’ve got a say in the firm’s culture. You’ve got a meaningful say in the strategic direction of the firm. You’ve got a say on who works on your matters and who doesn’t and who gets exposure to clients to build their own book,” Caine said.

Breaux likened the lack of origination credit and ownership of work to “legal sharecropping. Attorneys of color may work on a matter, as a sharecropper might work the land, but they don’t really own it.”

Who is more responsible for driving change, clients or the firm, Breaux asked Stacy, whose company boosts diversity through innovation, data and behavioral science.

Both are equally responsible, Ulrich Stacy said. If a law firm doesn’t have more than one Black or Brown partner, they are proving they don’t really care about creating a diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace. The same thing is true on the legal department side. If companies don’t ensure that diverse individuals get an equal chance to do the high-level work, as well as lead and get credit for work, they are demonstrating with their actions they don’t truly care about the diversity and inclusion of their outside counsel teams, she said.

Vivia Chen, who chronicled the legal industry for 20 years at The American Lawyer and now is a columnist at Bloomberg, said she’s “seen this movie before.” In the late 1990s, hundreds of general counsels of Fortune 500 companies signed a statement of principles that called for diversity in hiring outside counsel. In the next decade there was a similar statement.

“Do we really mean it this time?” she asked.