By Sherry Karabin
It has only been a few weeks since 29-year-old Nakeena Covington graduated from Northwestern University School of Law. The former 3L and alumni representative of the Black Law Students Association is now looking forward to starting her new position this fall as an in-house attorney at Hewlett Packard.
"[The association] allowed me to expand my network," Covington said. "Both of my summer jobs were in-house and I got to see how things work. I always had an interest in business and my experiences let me see how all the pieces fit together."
Covington said she would like to see a more diverse group of law students secure a place in the legal field.
"I think the law school administration has a lot of policies in place to help diverse law students like myself be successful," Covington said. "But overall the profession is not where we want it be yet."
Chicago native Veronica Cortez, who just finished her first year at Chicago-Kent College of Law, said she also believes the legal profession has work to do when it comes to being more inclusive.
"We need more role models and alums to go into the community and into high schools and to let people know it's possible to get a law degree," said Cortez, who is also the president of the Hispanic-Latino Law Students Association at Chicago-Kent and a volunteer for the nonprofit organization, Mujeres Latinas en Acción (Latin Women In Action), where she mentors girls between the ages of 12 and 17.
"I am a first-generation college graduate and the first person in my family to get any sort of graduate degree, but once I left college there was not any information out there about what resources were available to someone like me applying for law school, and I was a paralegal at a law firm," Cortez said.
Minorities are making inroads in many areas, but they still lag behind in law. Some experts said the problem can be traced back to elementary school, where diverse students may not receive the same quality education, impacting their ability to win spots at top colleges and law schools that lead to positions. Others said the key is that children must be introduced to the idea of a career in law early on and preferably by diverse legal professionals who serve as role models.
Many law schools and some firms are taking these ideas to heart, volunteering their time to help younger children and stepping up their efforts to recruit diverse members. Chicago Lawyer spoke to administrators, faculty, students and firm recruiters to see what they are doing to improve the numbers.
The latest findings by the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) are not encouraging. NALP shows the number of women and minority associates at law firms declined between 2009 and 2010. Chicago Lawyer 's survey of the largest Illinois' law firms saw something similar this year. (See the related story on page 18).
According to a news release issued by NALP Executive Director James Leipold, while the decrease was quite small, it is considered significant since it represents the reversal of what had been, up until 2010, a constant upward trend.
NALP attributed the decrease to the massive lawyer layoffs brought on by the 2008-2009 recession. The decrease did not affect the number of partners at firms. In the 2010-2011 NALP Directory of Legal Employers, about 6 percent of partners were minorities and minority women accounted for 1.95 percent with many offices reporting no minority partners at all.
"This is not surprising," said Venu Gupta, executive director of the Chicago Committee on Minorities in Large Law Firms. "When firms find ways to make their operations leaner, they look at who is profitable, using billable hours and clients to make the determination. Diverse lawyers are often not given the same opportunities with respect to building the relationships that translate into profitability and may have fewer mentors who are looking out for their best interests."
The committee is currently working with Chicago law schools and colleges to help increase the number of diverse attorneys at firms and corporations.
"Our goal is to nurture the presence of new and future lawyers," Gupta said. "I don't think anyone is doing enough. I think colleges, law schools, law firms and corporate legal departments need to start working together to create a vertical chain of investment and responsibility. Firms say law schools are not producing enough qualified candidates; law schools say colleges are not preparing students properly. Everyone is passing the blame. No one can single-handedly change who the profession includes, there must be collaboration."
Getting them early
Gupta and other advocates for diversity said efforts to improve diversity in the legal community need to begin much sooner, perhaps as early as middle or even elementary school, with those in the profession reaching out to children and introducing them to the idea of a career in law.
For example, the Edward J. Lewis II Lawyers in the Classroom program, run by the Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago, trains lawyers and law students to teach legal topics to second- to eighth-grade students.
"We focus on authentic governmental and constitutional issues and the majority of the students are seventh- and eighth-graders in Chicago public schools," said Jessica Chethik, director of elementary and middle school programs for the Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago.
"The primary goal is to engage students in our democracy and help them become informed and active citizens," Chethik said. "Some of the firms do mock trials and other interesting projects. They use real problems to show how our legal system works and these experiences get some students thinking about the idea of a career in law."
Brittany Pritchett, vice president of the Black Law Students Association at Chicago-Kent, volunteers her time to the Lawyers in the Classroom program.
"I enjoy it," said Pritchett, who is now in her third year at Chicago-Kent. "My association partners with the career services office and attorneys at Holland & Knight. We teach middle-school students lessons about trials and other aspects of the law. One of the kids even said 'I want to be a lawyer.'
"It's hard to know what you want to do if you don't understand what you could potentially become. When the kids meet lawyers or law students, they realize if they work hard, they can do it, too."
Going the extra mile
In Cortez's case, she said she received a lot of help at her law school from the moment she first applied.
"I got a letter from the former president of the Hispanic-Latino Law Students Association at Chicago-Kent telling me about the services Chicago-Kent and HLLSA offered.
"I have a local attorney who is my mentor. He is a former Chicago-Kent student, so he had some of the same professors. He talks to me about strategy for finals and what classes to take.
"Chicago-Kent also gives scholarships to minority students and holds diversity workshops when students are admitted so they can begin networking," Cortez said.
Michelle Mohr Vodenik, director and public interest/diversity advisor in the career services office of Chicago-Kent College of Law, said the school takes a multipronged approach to increasing and supporting diverse students, ranging from partnering with community organizations to raise awareness about diversity to participating in minority job fairs like the one sponsored by the Cook County Bar Association.
Assistant Dean for Admissions Nicole Vilches said the school's admissions office holds two diversity open houses, one for potential applicants and the other for admitted students, to give them information about the school and its diversity initiatives.
"Student representatives from our diverse student organizations are present at these events," Vilches said. "They also do outreach on our behalf, sending out letters and e-mails to candidates. I think efforts like this are critical to help prospective students decide if the environment will be a good fit."
Francine Soliunas, assistant dean for strategy and student professional development, runs the Chicago-Kent PLUS (PreLaw Undergraduate Scholars) program. The program occurs every June and gives minority college students a preview of law school.
"They stay at the dorms and take three substantive law classes, spend time in federal and state courts, meet with judges and lawyers, predominantly those of color, and the heads of the various student organizations," Soliunas said.
"Right now the number of diverse students is declining. My job is to work with the students who do enroll and help facilitate their journey through law school and help them transition into jobs once they graduate. I encourage them to build and sustain relationships in law school that can help them throughout their careers. I think the efforts are making a difference with our students."
Audra Wilson, director of diversity education and outreach at Northwestern University School of Law, said she works closely with the diverse student organizations to create programming and networking activities at the school.
"The students bring in alums from different practice areas to do talks and participate in discussions. Some of the attorneys they bring in do resume reviews and invite the students to outside events," Wilson said.
"For firms interested in recruiting, Northwestern allows them to work with diverse student group leaders to set up luncheons or off-campus dinners. We will help by providing space, but encourage the firms to work with all diverse student leaders, not just a particular group."
Wilson said the school is involved with two programs designed to help diverse students, those who have been out of school for five or more years and students for whom English is a second language.
The summer law preparatory program runs one week and is specifically designed for incoming freshmen.
"The purpose of the program is to assist them in adjusting to the rigors of their first year of law school," Wilson said.
The JumpStart Preview and Preparation Program is a citywide version of Northwestern's program, which was sponsored and organized by the Chicago Consortium of Diversity Professionals.
Wilson, who is a co-chair, said, "It is less focused on substantive first-year courses and more focused on discussing the key components of law school that are crucial to academic success, including class preparation, time/stress management, exam writing, etc.
"I've tried to make the law school a better community partner. We are formalizing a Chicago LegalTrek, 10-week crash course for college students and post-graduate students who are contemplating going into law.
"They are given an introduction to the legal practice and are partnered with attorney mentors. Each year, LegalTrek has been able to negotiate with an LSAT study provider to offer an LSAT prep course at a steep discount to its students."
Recruitment and retention
Loyola University Chicago School of Law Dean David N. Yellen said his institution partners with several law firms to offer scholarships and summer associates positions to diverse candidates.
"We recruit at historically black colleges and reach out to minority student advisors at colleges throughout the country," Yellen said. "I also have a diversity council alumni advisory board, which we meet with regularly to strategize and find ways to get our talent in front of hiring partners and alumni mentors who also work with students."
Yellen said over the last couple of years the school has almost doubled the number of diverse first-year students through its recruiting efforts, but said the answer really begins in elementary school. "Children need a good education so they are prepared for college and law school.
"On the law firm side, it seems the problem is that recruiters are looking for the next Barack Obama," Yellen said. "They have to realize that he only comes along once, and if they are really interested in diversity they must look beyond grades in their search for talented lawyers, and be willing to invest the time and energy so they can succeed."
As part of its efforts to bring in more qualified candidates, the administration asks students to participate in pipeline programs like Lawyers in the Classroom as well as Street Law, a law school course that focuses on teaching law lessons, typically in public high schools.
"Research shows children need to know the steps involved in becoming a lawyer," said Mary Bird, director of public service programs at Loyola. "Street Law exposes them to legal curriculum in high school and gives them a chance to form relationships with law students so they understand the path to becoming an attorney."
Bird said Loyola also holds a Saturday program for high school students in January and February to give the teenagers a chance to sit in on law classes, watch and take part in mock trials and get comfortable in a law school environment.
"We take field trips to law firms, where they can meet minority attorneys and other attorneys involved in minority outreach."
Jim Arce is among the many students to become involved in Bird's outreach efforts. As a member of Loyola's Latino Law Students Association, he said he is concerned about attracting diverse students to the profession.
Arce, who just finished his second year, has been teaching Street Law lessons to students at Kenwood Academy since the fall of 2010. He also participated in a summer mentoring program with Just The Beginning Foundation, where he met and began mentoring a black student from Kenwood.
"My goal for him and the other students is to expose them to the law and let them know that people who come from less privileged circumstances can also make it in the profession," Arce said.
Loyola also focuses on retention, holding a six-week Introduction to Lawyering course in the summer for its first-year students.
"The class is open to anyone who needs or wants the extra help," said Pamela A. Bloomquist, assistant dean of admission and financial aid at Loyola law school. "We also have tutoring programs available, and that helps those who are here, and it attracts potential candidates."
Loyola graduate Josie M. Gough said she considered the help she received invaluable and she makes an effort to give back. She left private practice in August and now serves as director of experiential learning.
"I help the students translate their skills into actual practice," Gough said. "In law school, unlike medical school, we do not have residency programs but we do offer clinics and extra programs that allow students to learn how to become problem-solvers."
As a black woman, she said a mentor took her "under his wing" when she was in law school.
"He advocated for me and other progressive law students." She now mentors numerous students. "My personal goal is legacy," Gough said.
Rory Smith, associate dean for outreach and planning and director of diversity affairs and outreach programs at The John Marshall Law School, said the school hosts many pipeline programs, including the National Undergraduate Diversity Mock Trial Competition, where minority college students from across the country compete and are eligible to win up to $30,000 in tuition waivers at John Marshall.
The college also hosts events like the Regional Undergraduate Diversity Mock Trial Competition, the Intermural Undergraduate Mock Trial Workshops and Competitions and the annual High School Mock Trial Program, where the winners can again qualify for tuition waivers.
John Marshall offers a free prelaw workshop for minority college students and a legal skills success camp and JumpStart program for admitted students, which are designed to help diverse and at-risk, first-year students build skills.
"Our programs touch on a variety of different agendas and strategies," Smith said. "Our pipeline programs help generate interest at the high school and college levels, but we also need to break down the barriers to admission, one of which is the high cost of a legal education, which is why we offer tuition waivers."
First-year John Marshall student Daissy Dominguez is among those to benefit from scholarship money. An ILSA representative of the Latino Law Student Association, she participated in several mock trial competitions while in high school and college.
"I earned $30,000, and established a connection with the school," Dominguez said. She now volunteers her time to help others who are involved in the competitions.
"For me, it was an awesome experience. I'm hoping I can inspire others to choose a legal career."
Smith said mentoring is also an important part of the strategy. As a result, faculty and students reach out to those they meet during the various diversity programs.
"I would like to see more firms and companies offering scholarship money and more lawyers giving of their time to help expand pipeline programs," Smith said.
"Volunteers really make a difference, transforming the lives of students and mentors."
Faculty, staff and students at DePaul University College of Law also focus on pipeline programs, including bringing in groups of elementary and high school students to participate in mock trials.
"Most of us who care about diversity realize that it can't be achieved by going out and recruiting minorities who are in their senior year of college," said Michael S. Burns, associate dean for enrollment management and director of law admission. "We need to increase the number of students of color in the pipeline, from elementary school on up."
Kelli R. Gallimore, treasurer of DePaul's Black Law Students Association, said she is also a big proponent of pipeline programs. She volunteers to help with student visits.
"We had students from Hope High School here recently," Gallimore said. "They toured the school and were part of a mock trial. They were so engaged.
They understood the material and I felt like it really got their minds going. We need to get them interested and then guide them in the right direction. They won't be able to do it without guidance."
Burns said the administration works closely with the diverse student group organizations on campus, along with minority prelaw organizations at colleges and universities to help recruit and mentor those on campus.
"Our minority student organizations all have mentor programs where they assign an upper-level student to each first-year and our Academic Support Program helps first-year law students, particularly those with nontraditional backgrounds, develop critical-thinking and analytical skills."
The school also teams up with Just The Beginning Foundation, hosting the organization's five-day Middle School Law Camp and 10-day Summer Legal Institute for high school students. DePaul also holds a Diversity at DePaul Law program for prospective students.
"While all prospective students are invited, the program focuses on how students can highlight their diverse background in the law school admissions process," Burns said. He said DePaul offers scholarships to those who have academic merit, some financial need and enhance diversity.
"Personally, I would like to see more companies demand that the law firms they retain be more diverse," Burns said.
Firms respond to the call
For the past three years, SNR Denton has worked with Northwestern University School of Law on its summer law preparatory program.
"We host a dinner and lead a discussion, where lawyers from different practice groups and at different levels of experience chat about their daily work, what led them to their area of practice and what special skills are involved.
We then open up the floor to the students to ask questions," said Pamela Baker, co-chair of SNR Denton's Chicago Diversity Committee.
"All of the students come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and for some English is not their first language," she said. "I remember one young man whose first language was Mandarin asking me what area of practice might be best for a person who did not speak English perfectly.
"It's really more of a networking session. I've continued my discussions with some of these students since then."
The firm also sponsors the Legacy Charter School in North Lawndale, which serves a severely disadvantaged area in Chicago.
Sarah L. Olson, professional development and diversity director at Wildman, Harrold, Allen & Dixon, said the firm works to provide networking and mentoring programs to area law schools and their diverse student organizations.
"We work on joint pipeline projects with student law groups and offer resume review and mock interviews to first-year students at Northwestern and other schools."
Olson said the firm also partners with the Council on Legal Education Opportunity (CLEO) to support minority law students through a variety of mentoring programs.
"Ninety-nine point nine percent of the students we help do not end up at the firm," Olson said.
"But our goal is to help diversify the entire profession whether we are looking to recruit or not."
Leslie Richards-Yellen, Hinshaw & Culbertson's chief diversity and inclusion officer, said the firm has set up programs so black, Hispanic, Asian and female attorneys as well as other diverse lawyers can go into the community and provide mentoring and networking help to those interested in becoming part of the legal profession.
"We are active in the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession," Richards-Yellen said. "They ask members to pledge that 10 percent of firm attorneys will spend eight hours a year doing pipeline activities to expose children to the legal profession. Our attorneys are involved with pipeline programs for Lawyers in the Classroom, Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting, Aim High and the Companies That Care.
"We are also developing an internal program through Hinshaw University to teach everyone about unconscious bias, so we can learn how to avoid it from an institutional and an individual perspective."
Hinshaw & Culbertson has a longstanding relationship with DePaul University College of Law, offering a combination scholarship and summer internship program to second-year diverse students.
"I think one of the keys to a vibrant diversity program is to have someone at the firm dedicated to inclusion and that person should be a lawyer who has access to the managing partner and can negotiate opportunities to foster diversity. Otherwise I think things at firms will change slowly," Richards-Yellen said.