The changing face of law

A profession looks for new ways to improve diversity

A profession looks for new ways to improve diversity
By Paul Dailing

Law in Chicago in 2017 is still white, straight and male. Society isn’t.

Over the next few pages, you’ll see the results of the Chicago Lawyer 2017 Firm Diversity Survey, a look at who makes up the largest local firms. We surveyed the top 100 largest firms in Illinois as determined by our sister publication Sullivan’s Law Directory and numbers directly provided by the firms, asking them about issues of race, gender and sexuality.

Chicago Lawyer 2017 Firm Diversity Survey

About 90 percent of the firms that provided this information to the survey responded that they have some form of structure in place — a committee or position — tasked with issues of diversity and representation. However, the numbers still show Big Law is predominantly white and male.

For Moses Suarez, vice president of the Lesbian and Gay Bar Association of Chicago, it comes down to a simple question.

“What do you do after forming those diversity committees?” said Suarez, a partner at SmithAmundsen.


“Law firms don’t know that they’re not doing enough,” said Claudia Castro, whose term as president of the Hispanic Lawyers Association of Illinois ended in May.

Castro, an associate at Odelson & Sterk in Evergreen Park, said firms aren’t taking full advantage of existing resources that can bring qualified attorneys of color in the door. The times she has seen firms reach out to affinity bar groups about hiring have been well-intentioned but cursory.

“They’ll send up their job postings and they’ll say ‘Please post this,’ but have I ever heard from anybody saying ‘Can you recommend anyone?’ or a more personal touch? No, never,” said Castro, who has been involved with her association since 2009.

That lack of representation can help perpetuate the problem, said Tiffany Harper, co-founder of the Diverse Attorneys Pipeline Program and herself an associate counsel at Grant Thornton, a professional services network.

“Even if [firms] get women of color in the door and you treat them fairly, there’s still the barrier that when you look up and see who’s at the top and see no one looks like you, it’s hard to imagine that that could be you,” she said.

Harper’s group helps mentor women of color starting in their first year of law school, creating a pipeline of qualified young attorneys firms can look to when hiring. But hiring is where the story starts. Retention and promotion of women, LGBTQ attorneys and attorneys of color can determine where the story ends.

Harper and Chasity Boyce, the diversity and inclusion projects manager at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, founded the diversity group after trying to list all the women of color their age they could think of who stayed at firms, rather than leaving for careers in-house or in government work.

They came up with 11.

Harper said the firms she’s seen that have been most successful in their diversity initiatives have been willing to try new things. Old tactics yield old results, whether firms are finding their candidates by posting open job applications or through the personal connections and networks so valued in the legal community, she said.

“My dad doesn’t play golf on the courses in Winnetka,” Harper said. “If that’s where you’re finding your talent, you’re not going to find me.”


“I think that there’s been a move for law firms to form diversity committees, and that’s a great start,” Suarez said. “It’s a great first step, but there’s a lot more work to do and that involves time and that involves money.”

Many firms Suarez has seen have committees made of attorneys looking to improve their firm and how representative of society it is, but doing so on top of their regular job requirements. Lawyers can join the committees with the best of intentions, then find they don’t have the time and energy to do the job to the level they want, he said.

“How much time is put into it is dependent on the pressure from the billable hour,” Suarez said. “You have diversity committees that can stagnate over time.”

Like Castro and Harper, Suarez wants to see firms take full advantage of local bar groups and locate and cultivate pipelines that will provide them with a large number of qualified applicants. But he also said firms must dedicate funds and other resources to diversity training after the new hire starts.

“This includes training for all attorneys on diversity and training for the diverse attorneys so that you ensure they are well-equipped to be the best attorneys they can be,” Suarez said.

Although Suarez started his career openly gay, he said he knows of several peers who hide their sexuality from their employers. Social changes such as the nationwide legalization of gay marriage and the 2017 Hively decision extending Title VII protections to sexual orientation have made it easier for lawyers to come out, he said.

“There is an environment — at least in your urban areas — where LGBT attorneys can be more open and come out,” Suarez said. “The challenge I think is that comfort zone. I still know a lot of my colleagues who are out publicly but not at work. I think that has a lot to do with the conservative nature of law firms.”

The older nature of law firm management can also create less representation in the higher ranks, Castro said.

“I’ll go to a meeting with a lot of partners and other attorneys, and it’s all white. And older white. You still have a lot of people from the ’70s who are still practicing,” Castro said.

Starting early

“The root of the problem is we need to get more Latinos in the legal field,” Castro said.

Nationwide, only 3.9 percent of lawyers are Hispanic, up from 3.1 percent a decade ago, according to the American Bar Association. Only 2 percent of lawyers today are of Asian descent, 4.1 percent are African-American and 0.4 percent are Native American.

Firms can’t hire attorneys of color if people of color aren’t going into law. And they won’t go into law if they don’t feel they’ll have a place at the table, Castro said.

“We need to reach out to people from college and high school,” Castro said.

In May, Castro spoke to a group of high school students about careers in law. She said it’s valuable for young people to see that people who look like them — in her case a Latina who was a teen mother — can succeed in law.

Suarez said having visible role models is valuable every step of the way, from high school to law school to the rest of a legal career.

“When you don’t have role models who look like you, you don’t have an example to follow. That is more challenging for a minority attorney,” Suarez said. “It’s great that we have trailblazers that we can look up to in history, but not everyone is going to be that trailblazer.”