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2021 Diversity & Inclusion: Stronger Together

Bar leaders of color use data in pressing for transparency, accountability

Leaders of the affinity bar associations representing Minnesota’s attorneys of color came together last year — in light of the George Floyd killing — to issue a joint declaration condemning “criminalization of black and brown victims.”

Last December, they coalesced formally as the Minnesota Coalition of Bar Associations of Color (MN-CBAC) to publish the Twin Cities Legal Diversity & Inclusion Data Project.

The project reported on the representation of attorneys of color and women in participating law firms and corporate law departments that voluntarily provided data. The lack of diversity it revealed — with the share of minority lawyers exceeding the national average of 17% at only three of 18 Twin Cities law firms in the report — drew excoriating criticism from a panel of notable attorneys. The median percentage of racial and ethnic lawyers at Twin Cities firms in the report was 10%.

Now, the presidents of the four groups — Frank Aba-Onu of the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers (MABL); Arielle Wagner, Minnesota American Indian Bar Association (MAIBA); Richard Greiffenstein, Minnesota Hispanic Bar Association (MHBA); and Sukanya Momsen, Minnesota Asian Pacific American Bar Association (MNAPABA); — are working with advisers on the next edition of the Twin Cities Legal Diversity & Inclusion Data Project.

The results of the data analysis are to be disclosed and discussed in a virtual event from noon to 1:30 p.m. on Oct. 5.

The project’s advisory team suggested creating MN-CBAC to help with the diversity data report and collaborate on issues of common interest, Aba-Onu said.

Increasing diversity, accountability

“The big sort of (MN-CBAC) branding issue is the yearly data reveal, which would show the data from the bigger and mid-sized law firms and the bigger corporations, to spur the conversations, get things started and talk about how we can increase diversity going forward and also show accountability,” said Aba-Onu said, who noted that MN-CBAC hoped to add the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office and other legal departments of larger public employers such as Hennepin and Ramsey counties to the next data project.

Of the results released in December, Aba-Onu said, “We’ve got a way to go, but it’s good to get something out there.”

Greiffenstein said last year’s findings were “shocking to some extent. But we’re hopeful and optimistic that we’re moving in the right direction.”

Momsen agreed that the numbers weren’t great. “I’m excited to see if there’s any improvement this year in the numbers based on that, based on those coming to light in the public eye.”

Momsen, associate corporate counsel at Best Buy, won’t have to look far to see change in one case.

In December, while women accounted for more than half of Best Buy’s Twin Cities-based legal department of approximately 40 attorneys, attorneys of color accounted for only 8%. Best Buy’s legal department had no Latinx, Black or Indigenous attorneys.

Diverse team ‘critical’

Since then, half of the new lawyers hired in the Twin Cities are attorneys of color, Best Buy general counsel Todd Hartman said. “To be the best at what we do, it’s absolutely critical to have a diverse team that brings their unique experiences to the work,” he said.

While Best Buy knew it could do better and had recently announced new commitments to hire more diverse candidates, Hartman said MN-CBAC leaders and data project advisers including Ivan Fong, executive vice president, chief legal and policy officer and secretary at 3M Co., were “a prime instigator in us making a material change in our department in less than a year.”

Best Buy did not “tip the scale” in favor of diverse candidates, Hartman said, but focused more on making sure they were within the applicant pool. Job postings “tended to be way too narrow and specific” and were “screening out way too many qualified candidates.”

“Some of that was the ability to look at new sources of candidates,” Hartman said. “A lot of it too was making sure we considered the right slate of candidates … We needed to make sure that people weren’t self-screening themselves from the job based on what we said were preferred qualifications.”

3M’s Fong said the analysis of disaggregated data from large Twin Cities law firms and corporate law departments continues. 3M led last year’s data analysis and is supporting Cargill, which is leading this year’s effort.

As of mid-2020, 44% of 3M’s 98 attorneys in Minnesota were women, and 22% were people of color, according to last December’s data release.

Data creates transparency

The data project’s main mission, Fong said, is to leverage “transparency to help hold the legal community accountable… It reminds the community that while we have made some progress in this area, there is still more work to do. If we each take some ownership and take seriously the benefits of being part of a more diverse profession, we should see that commitment reflected in the data over time.”

Bar associations in other major metropolitan areas and corporate general counsel have contacted him to ask how to replicate the projects in their cities and legal departments, “and that’s been very heartening.”

He and other advisers, Fong said, have been working MN-CBAC leaders to identify areas of common interest for the new group to address.

“There are, for example, the anti-Asian hate incidents that we experienced and continue to see here in Minnesota as well as nationally,” Fong said. “The issues in Afghanistan with the resettlement of Afghan refugees and related immigration law issues may be another area of common interest. And all the bar associations have expressed support for actions that help ensure our judiciary and public sector legal entities reflect the diversity of the communities they serve.”

‘Moved the needle’

Summra Shariff, executive director and president of Twin Cities Diversity in Practice (TCDIP), said MN-CBAC “helped move the needle in getting corporate law departments and more law firms to provide disaggregated demographic data that wasn’t previously available publicly for some organizations.” TCDIP is a nonprofit association of more than 60 law firms and corporate legal departments working to strengthen members’ recruitment, advancement and retention of attorneys of color. Shariff, a supporter of the data project, hopes to see more firms and more corporate legal departments take part in the future.

“We’ve seen that corporate legal departments are growing and that they continue to recruit more talent,” Shariff said. “They are not only asking for diversity from outside counsel but they’re also building more diverse teams internally.”

Shariff also would like the project to incorporate data on LGBTQ representation and representation by job title, to see, for example, how many women of color partners or general counsels of color are in the Twin Cities legal community.

“It’s important to pay attention to what the advancement of attorneys of color with intersectional identities looks like, meaning we take a closer look at the pathways to leadership ranks within firms and companies,” Shariff said.

The MN-CBAC presidents acknowledge the efforts of advisory team members Ann Anaya, chief diversity officer and vice president, global diversity and inclusion, 3M; Jerry Blackwell, founder and chairman of Blackwell & Burke P.A.; U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Tony Leung; Don Liu, executive vice president and chief legal and risk officer at Target Corp.; Thomas Nelson, partner, Stinson; Minnesota Court of Appeals Judge Peter Reyes; Anna Richo, general counsel, chief compliance officer, corporate secretary, Cargill; and Yen Florczak, senior vice president and chief intellectual property counsel, 3M, who acted as coordinator between the advisory team and MN-CBAC, facilitating the data project.

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