What People Aren’t Addressing About Diversity in Law Firms

The statistics are harsh. According to the ABA National Lawyer Population Survey, lawyers of color represented just 14% of all lawyers in 2020. And that percentage has grown less than 3% over the past decade. 

While the legal industry has further emphasized diversity and inclusion, it’s still branded as one of the least diverse professions. Specifically, only 5% of lawyers are Black; 5% are Hispanic; 2% are Asian; and 0.4% are Native American. 

“It makes me recognize that there’s a lot of work to be done,” said Leslie Davis, CEO of the National Association of Minority & Women Owned Law Firms (NAMWOLF).

The industry may need an overhaul when it comes to diversity, but resources are available. Founded in 2001, NAMWOLF works to promote diversity within the legal profession by advancing successful relationships among its roughly 200 member firms. In 2010, NAMWOLF launched the Inclusion Initiative, an effort that aims to increase corporations’ retention of minority- and women-owned law firms. By 2014, 30 corporations were involved in the initiative and spent $212 million with diverse firms.

Davis joined the NAMWOLF community earlier this month after spending more than 25 years as a lawyer and litigator in the Chicago area. In 2014, she was honored at the Chicago POW! Awards for showing “game-changing leadership in business and their communities.” Davis represented the 5% of Black U.S. lawyers as well as another bleak statistic. As a partner, she represented one of the less than 2% of Black partners in Big Law.

“It wasn’t easy, but I was fortunate and blessed to have great mentors, sponsors and people who cared about my trajectory,” Davis said.

Some attorneys have cited a lack of mentorship and cultural isolation as reasons why they left their firms. Davis said she always tried to make herself available to lawyers of color, acknowledging that she was often one of few Black women in her positions who could provide the insight and guidance that fellow Black lawyers needed.

Why Promoting Diversity in Law Firms Matters

For entertainment law attorney Odell Mitchell III of Thirdinline Legal LLC, incorporating diverse voices into law firms is very important. During his time as a solo practitioner, he said clients have expressed comfort in working with him, and some have admitted that he’s the first young, Black lawyer to whom they have spoken.

The level of representation that I get to provide directly for people, especially young Black men, is something I don’t take lightly,” Mitchell III said. “People appreciate me being who I am.”

Family law and criminal defense attorney Chelsey Robinson of Owens & Robinson can also speak firsthand on the importance of representation. 

“I have had situations where opposing counsel referred to me as ‘sweetie’ or ‘honey,’” she said. “I find that very degrading. It shows that we need more diversity training. Because a lot of times, we’re not aware of biases.”

While training is important, Circuit Court of Cook County Judge Erika Orr thinks the answer is simpler than implementing various initiatives.

“The only way you get diversity and inclusion is to have a diverse and inclusive workplace,” she said. “The key is to recruit from everywhere, not just from select schools.”

Before becoming an Illinois judge, Orr operated her own firm from Amata Law Office Suites, Chicago’s first legal community of more than 700 attorneys and six Class-A downtown offices. Mitchell III and Robinson call Amata home as well. 

Amata's Commitment to Diversity and Inclusion

Amata offers premier legal support, including live receptionists and an experienced paralegal team. Orr, Mitchell III and Robinson commend Amata for filling these roles with diverse individuals and for highlighting diverse voices through its various communication channels. Amata’s CEO, Ron Bockstahler, also sits on the board of directors of the Justice Renewal Initiative, a program geared toward helping young men and women transition out of the criminal justice system.

“When you have groups like Amata, who interact with lawyers and law firms on a daily basis and see the need for change, ... it’s impactful when they decide to get in the fight and make a difference too,” Davis said.

During her time as NAMWOLF CEO, Davis wants to see the statistics improve. She hopes to provide more opportunities for minority- and women-owned law firms to work with corporations as well as public and private companies.

“It’s a great responsibility and honor to be doing work on a daily basis that’s been so important and meaningful to me throughout my whole career.”

At Amata, we know there’s more work to be done to empower lawyers of color. Call us or visit our website and take an online or in-person tour of one of our six Class-A law firm office spaces and consider joining the Amata community to learn how we can help. Or keep the conversation going by contacting us at conversations@amataoffices.com.

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