I’ve been thinking a lot about the state of diversity in the legal profession. Naturally, I’m asking questions of myself and others. How can I act to improve diversity? And will it matter?
Though efforts are being made, the racial makeup of the legal profession hasn’t budged much in the past decade. Moreover, the discrepancy between the diversity of the legal profession and the general population is alarming.
According to the 2019 ABA Profile of the Legal Profession, 5% of all lawyers are African American — the same number as 10 years earlier. However, the U.S. population is 13.4% African American. Similarly, 5% of all lawyers are Hispanic. This number hasn’t increased over the past decade either. In turn, the U.S. population is 18.1% Hispanic. And 2% of all lawyers are Asian – no change from 10 years earlier – while the U.S. population is 5.8% Asian.
It’s these types of big questions that lead to paralysis. The path forward is unclear, and the issue(s) are too overwhelming to solve overnight. What can be done?
The Certain Something I Can Do
Instead of feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of the challenge, I decided to do the certain something I can to do. I decided to act to improve diversity, even in a small way. That certain something was assisting the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism with the coordination of the 2019 JumpStart orientation.
JumpStart is the brainchild of Judge Ann Claire Williams (Ret.). The program helps prepare underrepresented minority law students in Illinois for their first year of law school. Jumpstart also introduces students to the best practices needed to become successful and professional lawyers.
Over the three-day orientation, I witnessed 63 overwhelmed students receive valuable tools and develop skills that would help even the playing field in law school and beyond. Most JumpStart students are the first in their family — and even the first person they know — to go to law school. On the other hand, many of their law school classmates have already been introduced to the ins and outs of law school and professional situations through family, friends and community members.
During orientation, JumpStart students learned legal writing and briefing skills, and participated in programming with federal judges and big law firms. By day three of the program, I saw the students’ stress decrease and confidence grow in knowing that they belong and are more prepared to succeed in law school. Importantly, these students now had a community; a support system and team of mentors who would be there to help them along the way.
Inaction Moves Nothing Forward
While JumpStart is a brilliant program and our work this year was valuable, I recognize that this alone won’t solve the legal profession’s dismal diversity numbers. The industry as a whole needs to act to improve diversity. Individually, however, we can set change in motion. The more we confront the challenge in our own lives, the more likely our profession will confront it large-scale. I saw this firsthand in the work of Judge Williams and all who stepped up to assist with JumpStart.
There’s no doubt that improving diversity a big issue to tackle. But as Amelia Earhart said, “The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity.”
People are acting. There are programs like JumpStart across the country that are fostering diversity and inclusion in law, beginning in law school. A small sampling of such programs includes:
How do you plan to act to improve diversity? Each small action brings us closer to meaningful change. Please share in the comments below.
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