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Ann Anaya, Jerry Blackwell, Judge Michael J Davis, Ivan Fong,Judge Tony N. Leung and Anna Richo
Clockwise from top left: Ann Anaya, Jerry Blackwell, Judge Michael J. Davis, Ivan Fong, Judge Tony N. Leung and Anna Richo.

Diversity panel sees much room for improvement

The Twin Cities have been the epicenter of this year’s national discussion on systemic racism that some argue pervades not only law enforcement organizations, but businesses across all industries. In a recent virtual presentation of a new report on diversity and inclusion data within the Twin Cities legal community, a panel of notable lawyers excoriated the lack of diversity in the metro’s legal community and challenged both law firms and corporate legal divisions to step up their efforts to assemble more diverse teams.

“It has always struck me as ironic that the legal profession is one of the slowest industries to evolve with respect to diversity, especially when our industry is charged with upholding the law and ensuring civil rights are not violated,” said Anna Richo, corporate senior vice president, and general counsel at Minnetonka-based Cargill.

“Over the past couple of decades, we had numerous calls to action to try to address the gross disparity between U.S. minorities and the majority group’s representation in the legal profession. While well-intentioned, they have failed to move the needle in a meaningful manner. We need to change this intolerable paradigm, and we must be credible about making meaningful change in the legal industry,” Richo added.

A look at diversity data

The report on diversity and inclusion for large law firms and corporate law departments in Minnesota was published by the Minnesota Coalition of Bar Associations of Color (MN-CBAC). Data on the number of people of color in participating law firms were obtained with permission from the National Association of Law Placement. The corporate law department data was provided voluntarily. The report breaks down employee numbers for each participating organization for these categories: women, Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino, Asian and Native American.

According to the report, minorities represent, on average, 17% of lawyers working in firms nationally. Three of the Twin Cities firms in the report exceed that mark — Jones Day (22%), Robbins Kaplan LLP (20%) and Nilan Johnson Lewis PA (18%). The median percentage of ethnic representation on Twin Cities law firms’ rosters of lawyers is 10%.

On the corporate counsel side, the average number of minority lawyers on corporate staffs also sits at 17% nationally. Six of the nine Minnesota companies in the report meet or exceed that total, led by Medtronic (29%) and Target (26%).

Seven law firms in the report have at least one Native American lawyer on their staff. The national average for Native American representation on firms’ team of lawyers is 0.3%.

A time for change

“We have been bemoaning the lack of diversity in our profession way too long. Now that we have the statistics before us, there is nowhere to hide. We measure so we can get results,” said Judge Michael J. Davis, senior U.S. District Judge of the U.S. District Court for Minnesota. Davis, who graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1972, gave the keynote address during the presentation. He said there were six Black students in his class, 12 women and no Native Americans, Asians or Hispanics.

The new report is a continuation of diversity and inclusion efforts stemming back decades by Twin Cities legal stalwarts such as Judge Tony N. Leung, a federal magistrate judge in the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota, and Jerry Blackwell, the founding partner and chair of Blackwell Burke P.A., said Davis. Both Blackwell and Leung also shared comments during the virtual presentation.

“Progress comes in fits and starts, and justice arrives too slowly,” Davis added. “The history of lawyers of color in Minnesota reflects the challenges and triumphs of our communities in color in this state. With these clear statistics, we will learn from those who are taking successful steps to recruit and retain women and lawyers of color. That is an exciting day for me — a hopeful day for me. I hope with the launch of this new coalition and the release of the diversity and inclusion data, today marks a real turning point to carry forth the torch of today’s new generation of leaders. Let us continue to fight for full representation and true equality in our profession.”

The next steps

According to Ivan Fong, an adviser to the coalition and data project, as well as senior vice president, general counsel and secretary of 3M, diversity and inclusion data within the legal profession have historically been compiled and made available, but only as a cumulative total.

“It is important to disaggregate the data to provide transparency and to hold firms and corporate legal departments accountable for making the changes they say they want to make. As we continue on this journey toward meaningful change, we look forward to sharing best practices across the legal community,” said Fong.

In addition to expanding the number of firms and corporations that participate in next year’s report, the newly formed coalition plans to continue to work on issues of common interest to the bar associations of color, Fong said.

His colleague at 3M, Ann Anaya, chief diversity officer and global diversity and inclusion strategic lead, agrees that transparency about who is accomplishing what in the legal community is vital to driving change.

“We have shielded this data for decades, allowing us to lean on a false narrative that there just weren’t qualified lawyers of color and female lawyers to hire. We knew that wasn’t true. The data tells us it isn’t true,” Anaya said during the web presentation. “When we’re forced to look at the data, we must be compelled to act. Full transparency, hopefully, will inspire a call to action for lawyers who work every day in furtherance of justice.”

Although collecting and publishing this data is long overdue, Leung said, it’s fitting that the coalition completed its work in a year in which Minneapolis and St. Paul became a focus of racial tension nationally and globally following the police killing of George Floyd. He expressed hope that a continued focus on diversity statistics will hold the Twin Cities legal community accountable.

“The only question, as I listen to Judge Davis’ words, is how many generations are we going to be passing the torch to before there is any real change in these numbers that we see?” Leung asked. “To me, numbers and statistics are the most transparent objective measurements of our legal community and how it is doing in terms of diversity and inclusion. Publishing this data may not be welcomed or even comfortable, but continuing to publish this data annually is imperative if we are to create baselines to compare and analyze trends and progress.”

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