In recent years, corporate executives and local bar association officials have increasingly questioned why so few of the nation's elite corporate law firms can claim significant racial and ethnic diversity among their partner or upper management ranks. Some organizations have even pledged to reward law firms that ensure high-level assignments for their minority attorneys and to penalize those firms that don't.
In 2004, Roderick A. Palmore, the general counsel for Sara Lee Corp., and top officials at 100 major U.S. companies pledged to curtail or end arrangements with law firms "whose performance consistently evidences a lack of meaningful interest in being diverse." Earlier this year, Wal-Mart Stores cut back its interactions with two law firms because of their lack of diversity. Sara Lee and Wal-Mart, as well as DuPont, General Motors and Shell Oil, have announced an initiative to boost the number of minority-owned law firms providing legal services for major corporations.
Not surprisingly, a number of law professors from some of the nation's leading law schools have taken it upon themselves to examine why the leadership ranks of large corporate law firms remain essentially a White men's club.
In 2005, non-White attorneys made up only 4.6 percent of partners at the nation's largest law firms, according to the National Association for Law Placement. Black and Hispanic attorneys each accounted for less than 1 percent of partners in these firms, experts say.
"Small firms are still quite segregated, but most people don't see this as a problem," says Dr. John M. Conley, a law professor at the University of North Carolina. "The controversy comes with the larger firms, especially the large elite ones that pay the highest salaries. They've done better at the entry level, but at the partnership level minority representation continues to be abysmal.
"Large law firms would like to do better. They're getting pressure from their corporate clients. The clients are much more diverse than the law firms," he continues.
Harvard University Law School professor David B. Wilkins, a leading researcher on U.S. law firm culture, says great lawyers are made, not born.
"Law practice is not tightly correlated with what is taught in law schools. In fact, it's quite the contrary," he says. "We do a pretty good job of teaching people how to think like lawyers. We teach them almost nothing about how to become a lawyer. That is something they have to learn on the job. And they learn that by being developed and by being invested in by people who already know how to do it"
The question of diversity in the upper echelons of elite law firms has added fuel to an already heated academic debate about the role of affirmative action in the legal profession. The writings of one legal scholar in particular have helped resuscitate the arguments of affirmative action opponents, who question whether law schools have the legal right to use race as a decisive factor in admissions. In his legal review articles, University of California, Los Angeles, law professor Richard Sander has advanced the idea that race-conscious affirmative action is itself the culprit in explaining why Blacks and Hispanics are in comparably low supply as lawyers. He says it also explains why those two groups experience disproportionately high attrition rates in large firms.
"Sander has been very prominent and controversial, using quantitative analysis to look at affirmative action," says Conley.
This past summer, the conservative-leaning U.S. Commission on Civil Rights highlighted Sander's work at a public hearing, as Commission members examined whether the American Bar Association pressures law schools into pursuing allegedly illegal race-conscious admissions policies.
"It seems the Bush appointees of the Civil Rights Commission have a clear political agenda that's anti-civil rights …