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State law firm diversity lags nation

But corporate law departments match U.S. rates, data project finds

Median ethnic and racial representation in participating Minnesota corporate law departments is on par with U.S. market representation rates. But the state’s law firms still are significantly below their peers nationally in such representation, according to a new report on diversity and inclusion in the legal profession.

Change in representation of ethnic and racial minorities was essentially flat from 2018 to 2020, according to the report from the Minnesota Coalition of Bar Associations of Color (MN-CBAC).

The coalition — composed of the presidents of the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers, Minnesota Asian Pacific American Bar Association, Minnesota American Indian Bar Association and Minnesota Hispanic Bar Association — released its Diversity Data Reveal report on Oct. 5. That followed the release of MN-CBAC’s inaugural data report in December.


One in 10 at law firms are attorneys of color

According to the report, racial and ethnic minorities represent 10% of attorneys working in large Minnesota law firms, compared with a national market median of 18%. Only two firms — Jones Day (22%) and Robins Kaplan (19%) — exceed the U.S. median. The report cites law firm data from the National Association of Law Placement (NALP).

In corporate legal departments in Minnesota, minorities represent 18% of attorneys, matching the U.S. market median, according to the report. Six of the 13 Minnesota companies that volunteered their data exceed the U.S. figure, with Prime Therapeutics (33%) and Target (27%) topping the list. Four companies joined the project in 2020: Prime Therapeutics, Ameriprise Financial, Hormel and Mayo Clinic.

Richard Greiffenstein, president of the Minnesota Hispanic Bar Association, said he would attribute the relatively slow growth in minority representation to the COVID-19 pandemic and its possible effects on firms’ hiring practices.

“I’d like to think maybe we would have seen a bigger increase had it not been for everything that came up last year,” Greiffenstein said. “I’m likewise expecting a more significant bump this coming year as we work our way through all things COVID and legal employers become more accustomed to and willing to hire and retain attorneys to help achieve these diversity initiatives.”

No ‘miracle’: Data doesn’t surprise

Frank Aba-Onu

Frank Aba-Onu

Frank Aba-Onu, president of the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers, the data did not surprise him. “I don’t know if it would have been a miracle but it would be very different to think that the numbers would jump from one year to the next given that we identified what we think are some pipeline issues and retention issues,” Aba-Onu said.

Mayura Iyer Noordyke, president of the Minnesota Asian Pacific American Bar Association, said she thinks that law firms are doing better at attracting diverse candidates as associates and summer associates. But Noordyke questioned whether diverse associates leaving firms because of retention issues could account for the greater diversity of participating corporate legal departments.

MN-CBAC, is considering expanding the data project to public sector legal offices such as the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office and legal departments in Hennepin, Ramsey and Washington counties, Aba-Onu said. Including other categories of NALP data such as gender diversity also is a possibility. Greater detail on racial and ethnic representation between associates and partners at law firms and staff and management roles at corporate legal departments also would be of interest.

The coalition also would like more firms and corporations to participate in its data project.


No improvement without measurement

Mayura Iyer Noordyke

Mayura Iyer Noordyke

“Our message for any diversity data collection initiative is we can’t improve these things if we’re not monitoring them,” Noordyke said. “If we don’t keep track of what the numbers look like and trends look like it’s hard to make progress.”

Casey Matthiesen, president of the Minnesota American Indian Bar Association, said participation has no downside.

“By getting involved you’re only positively contributing to the effort,” Matthiesen said. “I just don’t see where the hesitation would be. I think that’s something that firms and corporate departments should feel good about participating in.”

Jones Day partner Dotun Obadina, who joined corporate and law firm attorneys in a panel discussion as part of an online Diversity Data Reveal event, said the report shows that the profession has work to do to improve representation. Like many firms, Jones Day, which listed 51 attorneys in Minneapolis and has had a Minneapolis office for five years, has pipeline programs to develop relationships with law students of color.

Consistency, intentionality: winning approach

Casey Matthiesen

Casey Matthiesen

“There are programs that work for certain people and for certain organizations, but there is not a necessarily one-size-fits-all,” Obadina said. “But the common theme in all of them is that it’s consistent and that it’s intentional. You get enamored with the fad diversity program du jour, and the reality is it’s consistent application of intentionality over time. That to me is the winning approach.”

At Jones Day, “we think about diversity in every facet of what we do, whether that’s through recruiting or lateral hiring, through promotion and retention,” Obadina said. The firm has affinity groups that allow Black and Hispanic lawyers to feel connected across the firm, creating a measure of inclusivity and belonging that supports staying with the firm.

“It’s a tone from the top, from our [Minneapolis partner-in-charge] Brian West Easley to our managing partner, Steve Brogan, that says diversity is going to be part of our identity,” Obadina said. “Not only because it’s the right thing to do, but it allows us to serve our clients better, in a better way. Because the data out there is pretty clear that diverse teams tend to fare better than non-diverse teams.”

Cargill’s legal department recruited other companies to participate in the project, gathered and analyzed data and helped run the data reveal event, senior lawyer Kelly McLain said.

The increase of only 1% in ethnic and racial representation at law firms from 2018 to 2020 was disappointing to see, McLain said. At that rate, the law firms would need 30 years to reach the current U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ market availability of racial and ethnic representation of 18%, she said, though the market availability would likely continue growing over that period.

“It’s also important not to get disheartened by the data,” McLain said. “It doesn’t do us any good to look at the data and then just feel depressed or disheartened. Obtaining additional data is a step in the right direction, but we mustn’t stop because we might be disappointed. It really should serve as one point of reflection, leading to additional action.”

Twenty percent of Cargill’s 49 attorneys in Minnesota are people of color, according to the data, while 55 percent are women. Leading Cargill Law’s global diversity, equity and inclusion team in recent years has shown McClain that there is no magic bullet to improving representation.

“While Cargill knows it has more work to do, the success Cargill has had is propelled by a sincere dissatisfaction with the current state of diversity,” McLain said. “We have folded DEI into practically every aspect of our legal work at Cargill. It’s a topic that we discuss with all of our outside counsel. We’ve looked closely at Cargill’s recruiting and retention practices to ensure that we’re connecting with diverse talent, and providing meaningful growth and development opportunities for all attorneys on our team.”

Anna Richo, Cargill’s general counsel, chief compliance officer and corporate secretary, said she looked forward the diversity data effort continuing and “seeing the progress we make.”

“This shows that not only is it possible to achieve market, but with sustained effort and focus, we can surpass it,” Richo said in a statement. “To do that, we must be credible about driving meaningful change in the legal industry. A first step toward gaining that credibility is to be transparent, including by sharing this data. While our data didn’t show the progress we would have liked in all areas, it holds us accountable to doing more. This is not a quick-fix and we know it will take time.”


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