Special Focus: DiversityIncreasing Diversity in the Plaintiffs’ Bar

By Rachel Luke, Friedman | Rubin, PLLP

This article was reposted from the December 2018 issue of Trial News, the monthly newspaper of the Washington State Association for Justice.

Last summer, Liz Berry wrote in the Trial News that diversity is everyone’s responsibility. The WSAJ Diversity Committee’s primary charge is to recruit diverse members to WSAJ, but we need your help. For various reasons, this year was a call to action for me personally. I wanted to come off the sidelines, so I jumped in. I joined the Equity and Inclusion committee at my daughter’s public school, I volunteered for the Loren Miller Bar Association’s Judicial Evaluation Committee, and I happily agreed to cochair the WSAJ Diversity Committee with Catherine Fleming. At the same time, I openly question the usefulness of diversity committees. I do not question the importance of diversity in our profession, but from my perspective, it appears that we are not making much headway in recruiting and retaining attorneys from diverse backgrounds.1 Somewhere along the way, “diversity” became a buzzword with diluted meaning and purpose.

In my first months of law school in 2006, I sat in on my first diversity panel of many—where a Black attorney, an Asian attorney, and a white attorney (all women) spoke about their experiences—typically in big law firms or as in-house counsel. Still today, law schools and bar associations are having the exact same discussions about attorney recruitment and retention. It is exhausting, and I know these discussions began well before my first exposure to them in 2006. Why is it that our attorney population doesn’t match the general population in the area?2 Why are historically underrepresented attorneys, particularly women, leaving the practice of law in such great numbers?3 What can we do to change things? The answers to these questions are complex and involve current and historical inequities and exclusion. In trying to determine ways to move the needle, I sought the help of someone who has seen a drastic increase in diverse attorneys during his lifetime and who could lend me some perspective.

Lem Howell and I met when we were evaluating judicial candidates, and I soon found out what a supportive and gracious mentor he is.4 I also learned that Lem is happy to give advice. We are still brainstorming, but together we came up with some ideas for diverse attorneys who want to do plaintiffs’ work and law firms looking to hire diverse attorneys. Both groups are necessary for us to recruit new diverse attorneys to WSAJ. Below, I summarize our discussion and ideas into ten concrete action items:

1. Employers should consider participating in the WSAJ Fellow ship Program. The WSAJ Fellows are a diverse group of second-year law students who gain invaluable experience during this summer-long program. Once the Fellowship is over, consider hiring a Fellow who participated at your firm, or recommend the candidate for other attorney openings.

2. Law firms should consider participating in the Northwest Minority Job Fair.5 Currently, the job fair employers are primarily comprised of defense firms, nonprofits, and public service organizations. This is an excellent opportunity to meet and interview many diverse candidates for summer internship positions and/or employment. Employer registration is in the spring. Mark your calendars!

3. Attorneys who want to do plaintiffs’ work should not reinvent the wheel. Associate yourself with a good firm. If you are in law school and cannot find a job in a firm, try to get into a public defender or prosecuting attorney’s office for trial and courtroom experience. Become a trial lawyer. This experience will make you attractive to plaintiffs’ law firms in the future.

4. Hiring law firms should recognize the student loan burden that many attorneys carry. If feasible, offer a loan forgiveness or repayment program as part of your compensation package.

5. Most minority bar associations have their own job postings.5 Consider reaching out to those minority bar associations so that their members are aware when you are hiring. Go to a meeting and introduce yourself. Attend a minority bar association’s banquet or consider sponsoring a table as a firm. Start building relationships with attorneys from historically underrepresented groups.

6. Law firms should make sure that they are providing mentoring to diverse attorneys. Mentoring attorneys should be assuring that the mentee attorney is receiving high-quality work assignments, has access to networking and marketing opportunities, and is receiving fair performance evaluations and fair pay. If you do not have a mentor at your firm, find one. In addition, reach out to someone you respect who does not work in your firm. These relationships are invaluable.

7. Hiring law firms might consider that defense firms have pressure from their corporate clients to hire diverse attorneys. The future business of your firm will depend on having diverse attorneys with varying perspectives and experiences. In 2012, the Washington State Bar Association reported that 31% of racially diverse active members are in solo practice.7 Consider associating with these attorneys or hiring them as lateral associates or partners.

8. Underrepresented attorneys should get involved. Become the go-to person in an area of law that interests you. Write articles, speak at CLEs, join all professional organizations relating to your practice. Be visible. Get yourself a seat at the table, and make it at the head of the table.

9. Hiring law firms should acknowledge and appreciate that diverse attorneys are pulling a lot of weight. In WSAJ alone, women comprised 47% of the 2017-2018 WSAJ Board, and only 23.5% of the WSAJ membership, while men comprised 53% of the Board and 69% of membership. Attorneys who self-reported as Black and African American/African descent made up 1.9% of the Board and only 1.3% of total WSAJ membership. Multiracial attorneys comprised of 9.8% of the Board and 2% of total WSAJ membership.8 In all, underrepresented attorneys are taking leadership roles at high rates, and this should be recognized.

10. Consider referring cases to diverse attorneys. Almost every time I am asked for a referral, I am sending that person to a diverse attorney.

I also recommend reviewing the American Bar Association’s 2018 Executive Summary on Interrupting Racial & Gender Bias in the Legal Profession.9 The executive summary may be eye-opening to some, and the Bias Interrupters Tools are a great start to best practices for any firm in hiring, assigning work, performance evaluations, and partner compensation. These tools are actionable steps that you can take in addition to some of the ideas that Lem and I brainstormed above.

The only way to achieve diversity in our profession is through equity and inclusion at all levels—from education through partnership opportunities. Let’s level the playing field and remove barriers at every avenue. Let’s create inclusive cultures at our firms. Let’s recognize achievements and create opportunities for advancement. Let’s take meaningful and purposeful steps to dismantle the systemic inequities in the law and our profession. This will take some work. I’m up for the challenge. Are you?

Rachel Luke is an EAGLE member and associate at Friedman | Rubin in Seattle. She is co-chair of the Diversity Committee and vice chair of the Products Liability Section.

1 https://www.nalp.org/uploads/2017NALPReportonDiversityinUSLawFirms.pdf; see also https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/05/27/law-is-theleast-diverse-profession-in-the-nationand-lawyers-arent-doing-enough-tochange-that/?utm_term=.a638185366f4.
2 As reported in 2015, 89% of the Washington State Bar Association’s members are white, compared to 72% of the state’s population. https://www.wsba.org/docs/default-source/about-wsba/diversity/wsbaintersectionality-report-2015.pdf?sfvrsn=3f5738f1_0.
3 See 2015 WSBA Diversity Research Project Literature Review: “approximately 50% of female associates left their firms before they become partners, with many entering public service or solo practice.” https://www.wsba.org/docs/defaultsource/about-wsba/diversity/wsba-diversity-research-project-2015.pdf?sfvrsn=525738f1_0; New York City Bar’s Diversity Benchmarking report http://documents.nycbar.org/files/NYC_Bar_2015_Diversity_Benchmarking_Report.pdf;.
4 You can read about a part of Lem Howell’s civil rights legacy as showcased on the Washington Secretary of State’s website: https://www.sos.wa.gov/_assets/legacy/sixty-eight/gossett-and-howell-profile.pdf.
5 http://www.nwmjf.org/.
8 2018 WSAJ Diversity Report – for a copy, please contact
9 https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/women/Updated%20Bias%20Interrupters.authcheckdam.pdf.