arrowBack to Homepage


The Legal Profession
From James Madison's fiery debate at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, through landmark Supreme Court decisions in Brown vs. the Board of Education and Gideon vs. Wainwright, to championing the causes of environmental protection, fair housing, and public health in the year 2000, the legal profession has played a crucial role throughout American history. Writing the script for our unfolding American drama, legal practitioners serve as the connecting link between society and the rule of law. In doing so, they humanize or dehumanize our system of laws, and provide or preclude access to our judicial system.

Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, the legal profession is in danger of losing touch with the society it serves. Largely white and largely wealthy, it is serving an ever-narrower slice of the American population. While the profession is more than 92% white, U.S. Census data show an America that is 30% people of color. Law school enrollment is 80% white; yet Census projections anticipate an overall U.S. population of 50% people of color by 2050. The media tell of record law firm profits and associate salaries—while Census statistics tell us that 40 million Americans live at or below the poverty line; and a 1993 American Bar Association study estimates that half of all low-income households have at least one serious legal problem each year, with three-quarters of that group having no access to a lawyer.

These simple numbers present a complex reality for legal practitioners: The lack of diversity and high socio-economic status of the legal profession are at odds with the American population and its needs, diminishing the legal profession's capacity to honor its traditional role of serving our society. If the legal profession does not institutionalize greater opportunities for lawyers of color, the ability to attract diverse lawyers, prosecutors, public defenders, judges, grand jurors, legislators, and civic leaders will be compromised. Moreover, if the profession does not seek to better serve the underserved, especially communities of color, lawyers' role as the connecting link between society and the rule of law will be abrogated.

This is a matter of escalating importance. According to a 1999 American Bar Association study, Perceptions of the U.S. Justice System, there is a widespread perception in America that not everyone is treated fairly by our system of justice. Half of those polled thought that people in law enforcement treat minorities differently than whites. Almost as many thought that courts do not treat racial and ethnic minorities the same as whites. And people of color significantly outnumbered whites in expressing these perceptions of bias.

Back to top

Similar findings are reflected in the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium's recently-released white paper, The Search for Equal Access To Justice: Asian American Access To Justice Project Report (May 2000). The Report states that, "Asian Americans are having trouble accessing basic legal services, and have the most problems accessing assistance with immigration, labor, and employment discrimination matters. ...Whether it is a civil, criminal or administrative proceeding, immigrants who are limited English proficient are likely to be at an enormous disadvantage. Few, if any, courts provide adequate access and assistance. All too often there are reports of family members and other untrained bilingual speakers being pressed into service who may not even be aware of their ethical obligations or understand the legal terms being used in the courtroom. In some cases, because of the limited availability of interpreters and the absence of a uniform system for training and assigning interpreters, judges end up asking husbands to act as interpreters for their battered spouses, or untrained courthouse staff to act as interpreters."

As for American Indians, as Lawrence Baca, President of the Native American Bar Association says, "Of the hundreds of opinions written every year involving issues of Federal Indian Law—issues of Treaty Rights, issues of land rights, issues involving the sovereign powers of Indian tribes—none has ever been written by someone who was an American Indian."

Provision of pro bono services is also wanting. Although there are thousands of pro bono practitioners, hundreds of pro bono programs, and countless individual pro bono practices in place, the aggregate provision of pro bono services does not begin to match the overall need for them. Numerous studies indicate that only about 20% of the legal needs of the poor are being met by current pro bono services. And the population requiring pro bono services is burgeoning: America's population growth is greatest in its neediest communities—communities of color, of immigrants, of the poorly educated and marginally employed, those with substandard housing and impoverished schools.

The inequity in provision versus need is especially troublesome in that the people in need of legal assistance are usually the most vulnerable in our society. As described by Cynthia Adcock of the Association of American Law Schools in Pro Bono: The Heart of the Matter, "... people in need of legal assistance are from all races, ethnic groups, and ages. They include the working poor, veterans, family farmers, people with disabilities, victims of natural disasters, and the elderly. Two-thirds of legal services clients are women, most of them mothers with children. Many are formerly middle class and became poor because of age, unemployment, illness, or the breakup of a family."

The particular vulnerablilty of those in need of legal services is also illustrated in Bearing Witness: Legal Services Clients Tell Their Stories, a recently published report by the Brennan Center for Justice. One client describes immigrating to the United States to enter a marriage, then facing a daily choice between physical abuse or the risk of deportation. Another tells how the public school system wrongly forced her child into classes containing only the most disturbed students. A third describes financial hardship when an illness ended her husband's career and forced the family into poverty, while the State denied them the Medicaid coverage that offered the best hope of treatment and recovery. A fourth tells how the federal government separated her family from its ancestral Alaskan land. And a fifth describes fighting to secure medical supplies vital to her diabetic daughter's survival.

Back to top

 

The Numbers
Although comprehensive numbers regarding the participation of people of color in the profession and provision of pro bono services in communities of color remain elusive, some statistics are available through the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. Census Bureau, the American Bar Association, and local bar and professional associations:

Diversity in the Profession

  • Combined African American and Hispanic representation among lawyers was 7% in 1998. Asians were not reported separately. Today, total minority representation in the profession is about 10%, an increase largely attributable to greater participation and reporting of Asians. Less than 1/4 of 1% of lawyers are American Indians. Overall minority representation in the profession is still significantly lower than in most other professions.

  • Less than 3% of all partners in the nation's law firms are racial minorities, and that number falls to less than 2% in the largest and most profitable firms. In the 77 largest firms in New York City, 34 out of 4400 partners are African American—a rate of 3/4 of 1% In the 40 largest firms in Chicago, only 46 out of almost 3000 partners are African American. One in ten of the nation's largest firms has at most one minority lawyer. Asian Pacific Americans account for 1% of partners at major law firms.

  • There are fewer active African American federal appellate judges today than when Jimmy Carter was President. We have moved backwards despite the addition of forty-seven seats to the federal Courts of Appeals between 1979 and 1999. Three-quarters of the federal circuit courts now have either no African American or no Latino jurist. Asian Americans account for only 7 of 748 federal judges. There is only one Native American Federal Judge. The Fourth Circuit, which has jurisdiction over a higher percentage of African American citizens than any federal circuit except the District of Columbia, has never had a black appellate judge. And the state courts are frequently even less diverse. In Florida, for example, seven out of every ten judges in the court system are white men.

  • People of color comprise about 15% of judicial law clerks.

  • The proportion of students of color enrolled in law schools has doubled since 1986. However, over the past five years, minority law school enrollment has increased only 0.4 percent, the smallest five-year increase in 20 years. In 1999, the total number of minority law graduates in the United States dropped for the first time since 1985. Nationally, minority representation among law students is holding at about 20% despite dropping significantly in top public law schools in states banning affirmative action. But only 7.2% of law students are African American, and blacks represent 12.1% of the general population. The disparity among Latinos, 5.5% of law students versus 11.6% generally, is even greater.

  • Minority representation among general counsel in the Fortune 500 is 2.8%. Only 14 General Counsel of Fortune 500 companies are minorities, and 11 of them were named in the last four years. Overall, lawyers of color comprise less than 10% of the nation's corporate counsel legal staff.

  • Progress has been especially slow for women of color in the profession. Minority men significantly outnumber minority women in most upper-level jobs. Minority women make up less than 1% of capital partners in Chicago, and only 1.2% of income partners. There is only one minority female general counsel in the Fortune 500, only six minority female federal appellate judges, and two minority female law school deans. Law firm attrition rates for minority women are higher than for any other group. Fully 12.1% of minority women leave their firms within the first year of practice, and over 85% leave by the seventh year.

    Back to top

Pro Bono Services

  • According to 1998 Census Bureau numbers, almost forty million Americans live at or below the poverty line. Almost 20% of children are poor; 44% of all African American children and 42% of all Latino children under the age of six live in poverty. Native Americans are the shortest-lived, least educated, and poorest segment of U.S. society.

  • It is estimated that one-half of all low-income households have at least one serious legal problem each year, but three-quarters have no access to a lawyer.

  • Studies conducted by the American Bar Association and other legal services and bar associations indicate that the current level of pro bono services is meeting 20% of the legal needs of the poor.

  • Legal Services Corporation (LSC) funding has been cut for several years. In 1981, the LSC funding level was $321 million. Adjusted only for inflation and not for the interim growth in the poverty population, an appropriation for 1999 of more than $600 million would have been required just to stay even. 1999 funding was in fact only $300 million. Funding for 2000 is $305 million, $35 million less than requested by the LSC and the Clinton Administration. These funding levels, along with program cutbacks and consolidations, do not meet the needs of our communities.

  • Over the past ten years, the average gross revenue of the most successful law firms in the country increased by 56% to $265.5 million. During the same period, average annual profits per partner rose by 34% to $755,000 (adjusted for inflation). Since 1992, when record keeping changed, the average number of pro bono hours worked by lawyers in the "American Lawyer 100 Firms" decreased by 35% to 36 hours and 18 minutes a year, or eight minutes a day.

  • The ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 6.1 specifies that a lawyer should aspire to at least 50 hours a year of pro bono service. Only 18 of the "American Lawyer 100 Firms" meet the Model Rules' standard.

 

Lawyers For One America
On July 20, 1999, a Presidential Call to Action was made to the legal profession. President Clinton, together with Attorney General Janet Reno and Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr. appealed to lawyers to ensure both that the legal profession reflects the diversity of the society we serve, and that the profession provides full service to communities of color so that those communities can enjoy equal access to our system of justice.

Lawyers For One America (LFOA) was formed in the Fall of 1999 in response to the President's Call To Action. A non-profit organization, LFOA assists lawyers and their organizations from every segment of the profession to take on this mission, and to ensure that no one is barred from participating in or accessing the legal profession and its services.

Participants in the LFOA collaboration include: The Coalition of the Bars of Color; the American Bar Association; the American Corporate Counsel Association; the Association of American Law Schools; the Conference of Chief Justices; the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; the National Association of Public Interest Law; bar associations; corporate law departments; law firms; law schools; and legal services/public interest organizations. The collaboration provides officials in the White House and the Justice Department with periodic reports on the progress of the LFOA initiative.

Back to top

Lawyers For One America represents a watershed event for the legal profession. It is a collaborative effort that is unique in bringing together many disparate constituencies within the profession that have been working on diversity and pro bono issues from their various perspectives. It provides a consensus-oriented environment that is informed by previous work. Recognizing that one size does not necessarily fit all, collaborators offer individualized strategies and programs to address the unique issues of the different ethnic, racial and professional groups they represent.

In one year of existence, to achieve its mission for diversity and equal access to justice, Lawyers For One America has:

  • Collected information about practices and programs within the legal profession that are aimed at increasing diversity within the profession at all levels, and increasing access to legal resources to assist people and communities of color

  • Magnified the work of the lawyers and organizations participating in this effort so that their coordinated efforts can be of exponential value, and their stakeholders more informed and united in this effort

  • Identified the leaders of the legal community who are not yet pursuing the goals of LFOA, and obtained their commitment to take action in furtherance of those goals

  • Sought more active involvement from all sectors of the legal community by developing avenues of participation in LFOA efforts that are targeted to draw from their strengths

  • Surveyed, collected and disseminated information about model practices and programs for enhancing diversity and access to legal services from the individuals and organizations that are making a difference, and developed means that will allow other organizations to adopt those practices and programs

  • Established several Action Teams to develop and implement facets of LFOA's strategic plan, including: Creating a database of successful practices and programs; working with BusinessLINC programs in Atlanta, New York, and San Francisco; and developing the Insurance Panel Project, the Minority Clerkship Project, and the Internet Interactive Placement Project

  • Provided the means by which all stakeholders in the legal profession—lawyers, law schools, law firms, corporate employers of lawyers, bar associations, public interest organizations, government agencies, the judiciary, and others in the legal community—can collaborate with LFOA to actively pursue equal justice and diversity

  • Produced a videotape, "Bending the Arc Toward Justice", highlighting some of the beneficiaries of LFOA's initiative and programs, for distribution to the profession

  • Developed and used an LFOA Website as an integral component of this mission and strategic plan. The site functions as a clearinghouse of information of model programs and practices in diversity and access to lawyers. It also serves as a connection point for the sites of our participating organizations. It can be accessed at www.lfoa.org

 

Report to the President
Lawyers For One America produced this Report to the President of the United States on the Status of People of Color and Pro Bono Services in the Legal Profession. The Report is a record of LFOA's accomplishments, a resource for those wishing to join in reaching LFOA's goals, and a road map for LFOA's aspirations going forward.

As a baseline of diversity and pro bono efforts, the Report describes the foundation in place for achieving the goals of Lawyers For One America, as reflected by the numbers and anecdotal evidence of progress. It is not intended to be comprehensive, but rather an illustration of the work of the lawyers and organizations that are part of the LFOA collaboration. Participation in LFOA is totally voluntary, and self-reported. Consequently, many public and private legal organizations are not represented. LFOA applauds and supports the efforts of all legal practitioners and providers to diversify the profession and increase pro bono services.

The Report is not intended to stand alone. The organizations that have participated in the LFOA collaboration will continue to promote their own individual programs. And, where appropriate, they will form joint ventures with others in the profession, forming new programs often modeled in whole or in part on best practices and model programs identified by LFOA.

The Report speaks to the status of the profession, in the voices of the collaboration. It provides Recommendations to the legal profession to increase diversity within its ranks and open access to legal services, especially to communities of color. It includes Declarations of Action from all segments of the profession, detailing the practices and programs of a constellation of practitioners. It provides a set of model practices and programs. And it offers a comprehensive resource of LFOA collaborators and how to contact them.

Back to top

 

Homepage | White House Message | Mission & Strategic Program | Model Programs & Practices | Events Calendar | Declaration of Action | Diversity Trainers, Recruiters & Resources | Recommendations to Legal Profession | Website Links | The Numbers | FAQ