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Jane Bolin Project Blog

Beyond Morality: The Business Case for Diversity

By: Chief Coleman

2020 has been a year of growth in this country. For many, the stay-at-home orders have allowed for introspection regarding once normal practices. One looming focus for corporations has been the role of diversity in the workplace. Though diversification should occur strictly under the basis of it being the right thing to do, there is a case that businesses cannot ignore: it may increase its bottom line.


Business Performance

A study conducted by the Boston Consulting Group found a 19% increase in innovation with teams of diverse management. Team diversification breaks down groupthink with members becoming more inquisitive on operational details. Legal teams often focus on creative and efficient solutions, which diversification has been found to accomplish.

However, the organizations that invest heavily in building their inclusion within the firm are going to reap the benefits of diversifying its ranks at larger margins.  What this says is that gaining the benefits of diversity also requires serious investments in organizational transformation


In Practice

Even if firms are reluctant to build diverse and inclusive teams, reluctance to do so may ultimately affect its margins. After speaking with several law firm diversity personnel, a common theme developed: clients are demanding diverse teams on their matters. Pitch teams are being sent surveys about team diversity as clients attempt to align their company’s culture with their outside legal representation.

Diversification in the law firm setting does not only include minorities; the retention rates for women attorneys are abysmal. Still, women are defeating the odds and are becoming decision makers at top companies. In 2019, 33% of general counsels at F500 were females, up from 28% the previous year, and are starting to demand change. I spoke with a few female GCs who mentioned how they are flabbergasted when pitch teams come in with a lack of diversification. One stated, “As a woman, it is inconceivable when [pitch teams] come in and there’s not a single woman with them.” 

It is important that firms change their culture to create space for women and minorities to make partner and feel supported in their practice. 


Morality Revisited

Still, corporate leaders would be best served by resisting the urge to justify diversity measures by only looking at profit margins and client demands.  This school of thought often marginalizes the very groups these policies attempt to help. 

Of the diverse attorneys interviewed, many felt as though they were brought into the firm for diversity numbers or to sit in on pitch members as a team contributor without true investment by the firm in helping them become a better attorney. Some even recounted stories of partners stating that they did not want diversity hires to bring down the work product of the firm. That method of the reasoning is flawed.  Diverse attorneys do not wish to be hired based solely on the color of their skin but rather the merits of their work product.

The true business case for diversity is simple— diverse attorneys can and do excel at the same levels of their peers. All we ask for is the opportunity.  

The LSAT and High Tuition Inhibit Socioeconomic Diversity in the Legal Profession

By: Maura Reinbrecht

November 28, 2020

Financial barriers, such as LSAT preparation and law school tuition, discourage socioeconomic diversity in the legal profession. Student loans, which are increasingly necessary to pay for law school, disproportionately burden racial minorities and women. 


The LSAT is one of the most determinative factors of acceptance to law school. It is also a significant barrier to racial diversity in the legal profession, given the cost of preparing for the exam and the racial scoring gap. LSAT prep courses cost thousands of dollars and are time-intensive. Individuals with disposable income and the financial freedom not to work have greater access to more expensive, longer prep courses, textbooks, additional practice exams, and tutoring sessions. On average, white test takers score 7 and 11 points higher than Latino and Black test takers, respectively, in part due to the financial burden of test preparation. LSAT scores not only correlate with admission to law school, but also merit scholarships, which affluent students are more likely to receive..


High tuition and student loans

Entrance to the legal profession requires both an undergraduate and law degree, which most people cannot afford without student loans. Due to the gender pay gap, disparities in generational wealth, and lack of diversity at top law firms, repaying these loans disproportionately burdens women and minorities. 

Borrowing money for school is the “new normal,” but massive loans may discourage socioeconomically diverse individuals from pursuing a law degree. In 2019, 72.9% of law students borrowed loans, with an average loan of $118,159. The average amount borrowed by law school graduates declined slightly in 2017 and 2018, which may be due to higher tuition costs “disproportionately scar[ing] off students who would need to borrow.” Notably, the most expensive law schools are among the most prestigious. For example, in 2019, the price to attend law school at Columbia University, Stanford University, and the University of Chicago surpassed $100,000. 

Student loans can make it possible to pay for law school, but they disproportionately burden women and minorities. Women are more likely than men to take out loans and to borrow more. Due to the gender pay gap and lack of gender diversity at top law firms, women have less disposable income to repay their loans and therefore take longer than men to get out of debt.

Similarly, Black and Hispanic students are more likely than white students to borrow for a degree, borrow in higher amounts, and struggle to repay loans. Black and Hispanic students often lack the generational wealth that helps white students avoid or repay student loans. Additionally, minorities, especially minority women, are underrepresented in high-paying firms and as partners. 


The LSAT and high law school tuition inhibit socioeconomic diversity within the legal profession. Financial barriers not only discourage many qualified candidates from becoming lawyers, they may require student loans, which disproportionately burden women and minorities.

To promote socioeconomic diversity, law schools should stop requiring an LSAT score for admission, stop raising tuition costs, and provide more generous financial aid and scholarships that are not solely based on LSAT scores. Student debt will disproportionately burden women and minorities until the pay gap and disparities in generational wealth are reduced, and top firms achieve greater diversity, especially among their senior associates and partners.

Working Mothers Battling COVID on Two Fronts

By: Preny Sarkissian

November 14, 2020

Working mothers have grown accustomed to being on the clock for what seems like 25 hours a day, eight days a week. Juggling life, work, and family has become an everyday feat for women in the legal profession and beyond. This year, however, they were thrown an additional pin to juggle: COVID-19. Diversity advocates are concerned that the added pressures imposed by the pandemic are driving women out of the workforce and threatening to erase part of the progress that women have made in their pursuit for equality in the workplace.

Erasing Progress 

COVID-19 could negatively impact the number of women at firms, further exacerbating the discrepancy in retention rates between men and women. According to the McKinsey/LeanIn 2020 report on women in the workplace, women are at “serious risk for burnout, working double shifts as they juggle work and family demands like never before.” As a result, one in four women, and one in three working mothers, are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce.

The COVID-19 crisis could erase women’s hard-fought progress and set them back by half a decade, resulting in “far fewer women in leadership—and far fewer women on track to be future leaders. Even though women have constituted about 50% of students at top law schools for thirty years, women finally hit the 20% equity partnership mark in the last year. If one quarter of women in law firms start dropping out, they will risk dropping the equity partnership mark back down to the 15-16% level.

Moving Forward 

The McKinsey/LeanIn report suggests several ways to combat these problems:

Reevaluate performance reviews and make work more sustainable

A sustainable work pace is essential to helping mothers, as well as other employees, experiencing burnout and anxiety. Given the shift to remote work and employees’ heightened personal challenges, “performance criteria set before COVID-19 may no longer be appropriate.” Leaders and managers must, therefore, reevaluate whether the productivity and performance expectations set before COVID-19 are still realistic and reasonably achievable. Realigning criteria can ultimately lead to better performance and higher productivity.

Take advantage of flexible work options

Working from home during the pandemic has made it much harder for employees to draw boundaries separating work from home, and many employees feel like they are “always on.” To enforce these boundaries, companies can set new work norms or promote flexible work options. For example, companies may establish specific hours for meetings, create concrete policies for responding to emails outside typical business hours, and improve communication about work hours and availability within teams. Meanwhile, leaders can encourage flexible work options by evaluating employees’ performance based on results—not when, where, or how many hours they work. 

Minimize gender bias

The pandemic may exacerbate biases that working mothers face. These biases may arise when, for example, managers see young children playing in the background on video calls and assume that mothers are less committed to their work. Given that managers now have decreased visibility as to their employees’ work routines, they may be more likely to make assumptions about performance, thus increasing the chance of bias.

To mitigate these biases, leaders should address the impact of bias during COVID-19, take part in bias training, and track promotions, raises, layoffs, and furloughs to ensure that women and men are being treated fairly.

Final words to the firms that stress diversity

To the firms that insist they prioritize diversity: the ball is in your court. We call on you to take these measures seriously and help support your employees’ wellbeing during this stressful time. 

A Genuine Push for Diversity?

By: Chelsea Wu

November 14, 2020

The past few decades have seen real transformation in diversity and inclusion initiatives in the American workplace. With an increasingly diverse workforce and demographic, it is no surprise that diversity has become a priority among professions, with the legal industry being no exception.

Positive shifts toward diversity in law firms

Recent data show that the legal industry has made improvements in the realm of diversity and inclusion. A 2017 law firm diversity survey found that minority representation in law firms was at a record high, with minority lawyers representing 16% of law firm associates, partners, and counsel. The survey further found that progress was greatest among incoming associate classes. Such data gives hope that minority lawyers may, one day, reach parity with their white male counterparts in the legal profession.


Diversity or tokenism?

Still, progress has been slow. While minority representation has improved at the associate level, it remains stubbornly unchanged at the partner level. The same study found that minority representation in law firm partnerships only increased 2% from 2007 to 2017. An article citing the study noted that “[m]ore than 90% of all equity partners are white. Only one in five equity partners is female. While Asian-Americans are the highest represented minority in equity partnership, they clock in at just 3%. Latino partners make up less than 3%, and African-Americans less than 2%. Women of color comprise only 3% of equity partners, and multiracial partners constitute just 0.5%.” These numbers beg the question of whether law firms actually value diversity, or if they are simply paying lip service via their diversity and inclusion initiatives.

The problem with retention

It is likely a mixture of both. It seems many law firms have a genuine appreciation for diversity and that receiving good publicity for their efforts is an added a bonus. The real problem, however, lies in retaining minority attorneys. In 2016, 22% of all attorneys and 27% of associates leaving firms were minorities. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the diversity numbers dwindle at the partnership level.


But why are minority attorneys leaving law firms? The reasons are vast and largely depend on the person leaving and their law firm. Still, questions to ask include: How are minority attorneys being perceived and treated at law firms? Is there implicit bias training in place? Are minority attorneys paired with mentors that are willing to invest in them? Do minority lawyers receive the same meaningful work as non-minority lawyers or are they just “window dressing?” Does the firm hold itself accountable when issues of discrimination arise and do minority lawyers feel comfortable coming forward when issues may arise?

The push for more progress

Addressing the issue of underrepresentation at law firms will not happen overnight. Still, change needs to start somewhere. One article suggests that corporate counsel at large companies can play a role in demanding diversity and rectifying minority attrition. Solutions include:

  1. “Work[ing] with [law] firms to identify minority mid-level associates in their third through sixth year of practice to place directly on company matters.”

  2. “Reward[ing] or discipline[ing] [law firms] for exceeding or failing to meet . . . diversity goals.”

  3. “Commit[ing] a portion of . . . legal spend to hiring ethnically diverse or LGBTQ outside lawyers to serve as lead counsel on select matters and require that minority associates participate in pitching work.”

Here to Stay? Asian-Americans in the Legal Profession

By: Danielle Wilkins

November 7, 2020

For nearly 20 years, Asian Americans accounted for the largest minority group in the legal profession.  However, they also have the highest attrition rates and lowest ratio of partners to associates.  Is having a foot in the door enough if Asian Americans are not rising to the top?  

In 2017, the Yale Law School National Asian Pacific American Bar Association published A Portrait of Asian Americans in the Law, a comprehensive study concerning Asian Americans’ entry and advancement.  The study utilized pre-existing data, focus groups, and surveys to determine the areas in which Asian Americans are practicing, and the challenges they face.

Gains and Losses 

The study depicts substantial gains and losses for Asian Americans in the legal industry, suggesting that while able to enter, barriers prevent their retention.  The study shows: 

  • Asian Americans account for 4.7% of lawyers in the United States.  From 2000 to 2017, the number of Asian American lawyers grew from 20,000 to 53,000. 

  • In 2015, Asian Americans accounted for 11.4% of law firm associates, but only 3.1% of equity partners.  A study that measured the decline of attorneys working in firms with over 100 employees with 2 to 12 years of bar admission, found a 68% decline amongst Asian Americans compared to a 53% decline of whites. 

  • In California, Asians and Pacific Islanders accounted for 12.6% of line prosecutors, and 15% of the population in 2016, an arguably close statistical relationship denoting achievement in this area.  However at the supervisory level, only 3 out of 94 Asian Americans served as United States Attorneys, and in 2014, only 4 out of 2,437 Asian Americans served as elected district attorneys nationwide.

Potential Causes

Lack of mentorship is often cited as an obstacle to advancement for minority groups.  This study found the highest perceived barrier to advancement, amongst respondents, to be inadequate access to mentors and contacts. Respondents also expressed reluctance in leaving their cultural identity at the door and often sought support from other Asian Americans in the workplace. 

Additionally, bias was cited as a factor affecting career advancement.  While 71% of respondents stated that they do not experience overt discrimination in the workplace, 80% stated they have experienced implicit discrimination. Women reported more instances of both overt and implicit discrimination.  One respondent stated, “I’m an immigration lawyer. When I go to immigration court, I’m mistaken for the alien. When I go to jail to visit a client, I’m mistaken for their girlfriend.”


What Does it All Mean?

In many professional settings, gone are the days of overt barriers and discriminatory practices.  However, this study finds that “…[although] barriers are often subtle and not explicit, they are nonetheless real”.  It is reported that Asian Americans possess the “hard skills” necessary to succeed in the legal profession, but lack the soft skills pertaining to assimilation and affability, which in turn impacts networking and mentorship.  While an openness to cross cultural mentorship could be preferable in a more altruistic society, it simply does not reflect standard practices in the current legal profession, and does not occur at rates high enough to make a lasting impact for diverse employees.  This then leads to a perpetual loop of under-advancement, under-representation, unconscious bias, and ineffective diversity initiatives. 

This study and many others lead people with just a modicum of common sense to wonder:  if it is obvious that mentorship is a key driver of advancement, and leaders of the legal profession claim to be committed to diversity, why do Asian Americans and so many other minorities continue to plateau?  Perhaps it is because these legal employers are simply committed to diversity and inclusion on paper but are not truly interested in effectuating real change.

Undocumented Lawyers-–Here To Stay

By: Matthew Palmquist

October 31, 2020

DACA-mented Lawyers Rise Up 

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program shields from deportation undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. As of June 2020, when the Supreme Court decided to preserve the program, DACA protected 700,000 individuals. Undocumented recipients of DACA––who sometimes refer to themselves as “DACA-mented”––are a youthful bunch. All are under the age of forty, and nearly half are under thirty. 18% are currently enrolled in college, and 20% are still in high school. 

Because DACA does not technically confer legal immigration status, and the program has been under assault since its inception in 2012, many are hesitant to step into the spotlight. Thus, extensive data on DACA holders is hard to come by. However, as the program continues in the face of anti-immigrant sentiment and the children brought to this country become adults, undocumented lawyers are beginning to emerge and fight on behalf of their community.


Carving Out a Space in the Legal Profession

Undocumented lawyers have begun to practice in Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Wyoming. Impressively, many states only admitted undocumented immigrants to the bar after the successful lobbying of DACA-mented lawyers. The successful advocacy of undocumented lawyers for the right to practice their profession represents an important victory, but struggles lie ahead. 

DACA-mented lawyers are disproportionately more likely to be first generation students and people of color, with 90% hailing from Latin America. They are also often financially responsible for supporting their family, and disseminating legal advice to relatives who may also be undocumented. Undocumented students do not qualify for federal financial aid. Some are lucky enough to attend law school for in-state tuition in one of nine states that has both passed the DREAM Act and provides aid to undocumented students. However, most are saddled with even greater debt than their documented and U.S. citizen counterparts. These factors, combined with the constant threats and hostile litigation which have assailed the DACA program for nearly a decade, place a unique amount of stress and anxiety on undocumented lawyers. Action is needed if the homogenous legal profession can ever hope to expand and support our undocumented friends.

How Law Firms and Allies Can Help

First, lawyers who are privileged with legal status must lobby for legal protections of undocumented individuals across the board––not just those who graduated law school. Second, law firms should ensure that undocumented lawyers have the support they need, whether access to mental health care or a flexible work schedule to accomodate family life which might require attending a cousin’s green card interview at 9:00 before presenting to a partner at 10:00.

Finally, allies should lobby for changes to every state bar to allow undocumented lawyers to practice law. A provision of the 1996 Immigration Law forbids those without legal status from receiving benefits such as professional licenses––which includes bar membership. Right now, states can “opt out” this by passing legislation which explicitly states legal status is not required for admission to the bar.

Looking Ahead

Currently, less than 1% of DACA recipients work in the legal industry, but this figure is likely to grow as more undocumented students celebrate the recent Supreme Court victory and decide how to continue their education. Regardless of politics, the status of the DACA program, or the bumpy path ahead, it is time for the legal profession to embrace undocumented lawyers because they are here to stay. 

The Effects of Maintaining Work-Life Balance as an Attorney

By: Sami Harb

October 24, 2020

Disproportionate Impact

An ABA roundtable entitled, “Mothers in Law: Women and Work-Life Balance,” featured four female speakers, all of which were mothers working in law. . All four panelists agreed that a societal double standard exists for working women. For example,, Aliston Stein, a partner at Jenner & Block, said that the parent directory at her child’s preschool listed children’s mothers as the default contact to receive notices from the school, and she had to call the school so that both she and her husband would be notified of any issues regarding their son. This is just one example of how traditional gender roles, especially regarding parenthood, can disproportionately impact a female lawyer’s work-life balance compared to that of a male’s.


Impact on Career Advancement

As a part of their, “Women in Law Firms” study, a series of polls conducted by McKinsey & Company show that men and women tend to have different views towards how their efforts to maintain a healthy work-life balance might affect their ability to succeed in their respective firms. When asked whether they believed different behaviors would jeopardize their success, men and women agreed in almost equal percentages that “any failure, big or small,” or “pushing back on managers or senior leaders” could ultimately hinder their ability to rise through the ranks. However, there was a gap in the agreement between men and women when asked about work-life balance behavior. Forty-five percent of women attorneys believed that prioritizing work-life balance would hinder their success compared to 31% of men. Additionally, 16% of women said that showing commitment to their families could jeopardize their success, while only 7% of men agreed.


Practical Steps Toward Improvement

Many law firms at least recognize the impact of a legal career on an individual’s work-life balance and they have programs to help employees cope. According to McKinsey & Company, 100% of polled firms reported they offer the ability to work part-time or on a reduced schedule as well as emergency backup childcare services. However, while these programs are widely offered, they tend to fall short of their intended effect. According to Harrison Barnes’ “Issues of Work-Life Balance in a Law Firm Environment,” the increase of work-life balance options provided by firms has not resulted in an increase in the use of the options by attorneys, male or female. The stagnant rate at which employees take advantage of such options is largely attributable to the culture in many firms. Employees often worry about how utilizing such options might affect top management’s view of them, regardless of their job performance. 


Much of what leads to work-life imbalance for women in law is perpetuated by stigmas, whether that be gender-role stigmas which assume that a mother should take on more of the responsibility for raising children than a father, or the stigma that an employee who prioritizes balancing work and family is not as “committed” to their job as an employee who doesn’t. While law firms may provide services intended to help maintain this balance, deconstructing these stigmas is essential to create real change in this area.

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