Robin Sparkman

Toward a Broader Definition of Diversity

Why firms need to include law students from low-income backgrounds when they look for a diverse workforce.


Associate recruitment season has finally wrapped up at the big firms: all those hours of interviewing, callbacks, law school receptions and endless committee meetings. Firms arrived at their hiring decisions after scrutinizing applicants' law school and undergraduate grades, work experience, small talk and, let's face it, race, gender and sexual identity (LGBT). Diverse law students are in short supply. And firms, admirably, are looking to address the inequities of past discrimination by aggressively recruiting women, gay and minority lawyers. Firms also want to make sure that their workforces more closely resemble the ranks of their clients than say, the U.S. Senate.These are important and commendable decisions. But along with this definition of diversity, firms should consider trying to identify candidates who come from economically diverse backgrounds, too.

Whether it's the latest census data, the economic polarization questions that kept cropping up in the New York mayoral race, or the 99 percent rallying cry, the issue of income inequality continues to dominate the national headlines. It's a profound and complicated topic: Why, even after the end of the recession, is the gap between the top quintile of American earners and the rest still widening?

Other institutions have tackled this problem. At Amherst College, the former president, Anthony Marx, recruited more students from community colleges and increased financial aid for low-income students, among other things. And in the United Kingdom, where class discrimination is arguably more institutionalized, Allen & Overy senior partner David Morley started PRIME to provide internships for young people from poor or blue-collar backgrounds who may want to study law someday. A host of U.S. firms with London offices have also joined the program.

Why can't The Am Law 200 tackle this issue head-on when it comes to associate recruiting? Why not make identifying and actively recruiting law students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds a priority? (Sure, recruiting a racially diverse group gets at this cohort to some degree, but it's not exact.) Of course, these young people would have to possess the other bona fides required to work at the big firms. And some law students may not want to disclose this part of their upbringing, given all of their subsequent academic accomplishments.

Firms wouldn't need to completely overhaul their hiring practices. They might have to change their processes slightly to elicit this information and to expand the pool of laws schools they recruit from.

And, certainly, they would need to market this development to clients—get the message out that their hiring decisions will reflect a broader definition of diversity. They need to let clients know that they are doing their part to bring in associates who have overcome the challenges of growing up in a low-income environment and navigated the halls of academia without the financial cushion and perks that many of their classmates had.

Clients, in turn, would need to recognize this more expansive interpretation of diversity, and when it comes to staffing on matters, they would need to be open-minded and enlightened.

This isn't a comprehensive solution, but it is one way that firms can do their part in helping resolve one of the largest social ills of our times.

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