Law Firm of Gandhi & Mandela

Gandhi-MandelaOn the front page of last Sunday’s Chicago Tribune is a picture of Amy Cramer. I’ve never met Amy, but I’ve met many young attorneys like her. Amy graduated law school in 2011 and has been working at a contract job since. She joins the ranks of many of her colleagues who have been unemployed or underemployed for the past five years. This is not news to any attorney. So given that legal climate, who would encourage students to attend law school? As I learned last week, a surprising number of attorneys devote their time to doing precisely that.

On Tuesday, I attended a Symposium on the State of Diversity and Inclusion in the Legal Profession, put on by the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession (IILP).  The first part of the program focused on speakers who had published a series of articles on diversity and inclusion in IILP’s annual review.  The second part had four panelists engaged in a round-table discussion with the audience about the current state of diversity.

The program started with Executive Director Sandra Yamate going over the numbers.  According to the Census Bureau, between 2000 and 2010, aggregate minority representation among U.S. lawyers increased from 9.7% to 13.1%. However, according to the Department of Labor, minority representation among lawyers in 2011 was 12.7% compared to higher percentages in other advanced degree occupations.

Why the lower numbers?  According to two of the presenters, the pipeline is partly to blame. Fewer diverse elementary and high school students interested in law school equals fewer diverse pre-law students equals fewer diverse attorneys and in-house counsel.  Juan Cartagena, President and General Counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF placed the pipeline problem in the context of incarceration rates of  young Latinos and Blacks.  One example: should being arrested for marijuana possession as an adolescent affect one’s admission to the bar fifteen years later?  If we say yes, then we continue to shut out a number of otherwise qualified minority applicants.

Dean Nussbaumer at Cooley Law School then discussed the shut-out rates of different racial populations attending law schools.  Between Fall 2000 and Fall 2009, 31% of Caucasians who applied to law school did not receive an admission offer.  Conversely, 60% of African Americans who applied to law school did not receive an admission offer.  How do we address this issue?  The Dean responded that we need to level the LSAT preparation course, in the short-term, while in the long-term, create integrated pipeline systems that identify, mentor and challenge young applicants of color.

However, as those two men spoke, one question repeated itself in my head over and over again: why should we encourage diverse students to attend law school? Look at what we’re offering them – up to $200,000 in debt, three years out of the workforce, and then, in some cases, less than a 50% chance of getting a full-time legal job.

Someone asked that exact question to the panelists during the round-table discussion.  They all gave good answers, especially the panelist who discussed fair allocation of marbles.  According to the panelist, in the legal sphere, there are far more people who want marbles than there are marbles.  But we need to make sure when we allocate what we have, we do it fairly.  If we create a system that encourages everyone, regardless of their race, gender or ethnicity, to attend law school, then it’s far more likely that all those marbles are fairly divided between all those qualified to use them.

It’s a good argument but still left me skeptical. Amy Cramer’s story, and those like hers, have really made me wonder about the worth of encouraging diverse students to pursue a profession that may have no place for them.

Then something truly extraordinary happened this weekend. A great man passed away. His name was Nelson Mandela. Mr. Mandela was many things: revolutionary, prisoner, president, Nobel Prize winner, and icon. But before all of that, he was  a lawyer. The only native African in his university, he failed law school three times. He then started the first black firm in South Africa which, in 1960, was destroyed and burned to the ground.

Now you’ll say that there will never be another Nelson Mandela and we can’t use him as the yardstick to measure today’s diverse students. Perhaps. But thirty years before Neslon Mandela, there was another young attorney of color who traveled to South Africa to practice law. He was discriminated against, beaten, accused, and imprisoned. But for twenty-one years he lived in South Africa and transformed the lives of people there. His name was Mahatma Gandhi.

Gandhi and Mandela. Two attorneys of color in South Africa who, despite all odds against them, used their legal education to succeed. Mandela once said that “Education is the most powerful weapon with which you can change the world.”  Why encourage diverse students to attend law school? Because of one more thing we’re offering them – an education that can uproot foundations and shake institutions to the ground. That’s the legal legacy of the fictional law firm of Gandhi & Mandela.

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Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle Silverthorn

After spending seventeen years living in the Caribbean, Michelle undertook a number of around-the-world detours before ending up at the doorstep of the Commission, including four years as a general litigator in New York and Chicago. She remembers pretty much everyone she’s met in her travels but she would especially like to meet again the passengers on a January 2001 flight from Miami to JFK. At the pilot’s request, they donated enough money for Michelle, who had her wallet stolen, to get back to college safely. She would very much like to tell them all thanks.
Michelle Silverthorn

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