Diversity isn’t only an issue among the legal profession’s attorney ranks. Within the profession as a whole, there is a jarring discrepancy between the rates at which women and minorities fill high-level positions such as judges or equity partners, compared with non-attorney roles, including paralegals and legal assistants.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while women made up 37.4 percent of attorneys and 32.3 percent of judicial officers in 2018, they acconted for 86.4 percent of paralegals and legal assistants.
And while the legal profession is overall vastly white, there are still some stark discrepancies in racial demographics between the different positions. For example, the proportion of Latinx people in paralegal and legal assistant roles at 18.5 percent is about three times higher than the proportion of Latinx attorneys, which is 6.7 percent. For blacks in the profession, it’s 11.3 percent compared with 5.5 percent.
The demographic information from the BLS only includes data on sex and race and does not include information such as LGBTQ identities. It also does not include race information on Native American or Alaskan natives.
A few experts in diversity of the legal profession say these types of discrepancies between different positions don’t come as a surprise. And addressing them is largely a matter of tackling the profession’s “leaky pipeline” as a whole.
“It is complex because it’s not just obviously at this one place where the pipeline is leaky,” said Alli Gerkman, a senior director at the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System. “The pipeline is leaky from basically elementary school on through the end of college. … That pool, then, of prospective law students is already smaller than it is for the groups that are going to law school in higher numbers.”
Maria Arias, executive director of Law School…Yes We Can, knows firsthand what it feels like to not have a role model she could identify with as a Latina attorney. “A lot of times when I speak, I tell people that when I was younger, I wanted to be Perry Mason,” she said. “So what does that say? That says I didn’t see someone who looks like me, but I knew I wanted to be a lawyer.”
Arias said she believes Law School… Yes We Can addresses an underserved need for mentorship for first-generation college students who may not have a socioeconomic support network for upward mobility that students from more privileged backgrounds may have. Founded by U.S. District Court Judge Christine Arguello, the program pairs college students with attorneys and law students to help them build a network they can lean on as they prepare to go to law school.
“When we go to the first year of college, there’s culture shock,” she said. Arias added that while she was a first-generation student herself and had prepared for college for years through her strong academics and working from a young age, she felt out of her element for a few years.
“All the confidence I’d accrued … it just plummeted and went away.”
Law school … Yes We Can’s mentoring includes helping college students prepare for the law school admission process during their third and fourth years.
Arias said the diversity in most other industries in addition to the legal field can be looked at as having triangular structures, where diversity decreases moving closer to the top.
“You have to start at the critical point where you take someone from entry level to management, from management to professional, and find the leaks and then find programs to help support them [and] get them to the next level.”
Gerkman said IAALS takes the position that because law schools are the gatekeepers of the legal profession, the admission system should adapt for potential students in underrepresented groups who may not fit neatly into the traditional high school-to-college-straight-to-law-school pipeline based mostly on GPA and LSAT scores. More nebulous characteristics such as resilience, grit and emotional intelligence are also key to making good lawyers, she said.
“Perhaps there are things that can be developed in law school,” Gerkman said. “There’s also a huge opportunity to say, at the point we’re admitting students to law school, could we be identifying students who have these characteristics and competencies already? And that would mean thinking differently about the system we currently use to admit students in the first place.” She said that could help account for people from underrepresented groups who may have experiences that vary from the traditional pipeline to law school, such as having to take time off from college or take extra time to graduate.
Arias added for people already working in the legal profession in non-attorney roles who may have the goal of going to law school, the feasibility also may depend on their access to resources, such as part-time law school programs or their employers paying for them to go to school. She said it’s also beneficial for law schools to appeal to potential students with different professional backgrounds, be it science or fine arts, because they can bring a variety of perspectives to the legal profession.
But she said ultimately, addressing the profession’s diversity problem starts at the top of the triangle. “You can put a lot of money into talking about and supporting diversity and inclusion, but at the end of the day, the organizations and the law firms that are going to be successful are those that have a champion,” she said. “Someone in a position of power to help influence the initiatives that are going to drive change.”
— Julia Cardi