Chicago Lawyer -

From day one: The Diverse Attorney Pipeline Program seeks to help women of color from law school to partnership

September 01, 2017
By Dustin J. Seibert
Chicago Lawyer correspondent

As industries nationwide continue to diversify in the 21st century, law firms still struggle with the representation of underrepresented and historically disenfranchised minority groups. Tiffany Harper and Chasity Boyce took notice of this as they progressed through their own legal careers, failing to come across very many fellow women of color in the workplace.

That motivated the duo to start the Diverse Attorney Pipeline Program, a nonprofit specifically geared toward helping women of color obtain internships at law firms and corporations following their first year of law school. Students of the program attend weekly sessions during their law school year that provides extra assistance in a number of departments, including legal and resume writing in addition to interviewing and other professional development skills. The program also pairs students with mentors.

Boyce, who works in diversity and inclusion for Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, and Harper, who works as associate counsel for accounting firm Grant Thornton, worked with the program without pay and initially paid to run the program out of their own pockets. They just recently started seeking grants to grow the program, which operates out of the offices of FordHarrison.

While the program accepts applications from anyone, Harper and Boyce say black and Latina women are the program’s primary focus; one of their primary goals is for participants to defy the correlation between lower LSAT scores and class rank that plagues attorneys of color.

“[E]verything we do from empowering the students to academic support is in the view and lens of being a woman of color and our entire board of directors is women of color,” Harper said.

CL: How did the Diverse Attorney Pipeline Program get started?

Boyce: [Tiffany and I] were working together in the Black Women Lawyers Association [of Greater Chicago]. Tiffany was president from 2013 to 2014 and I was her vice president before becoming president in 2014. During her time as president, we talked about the straight decline of black women in law firms for six or seven years. We focused our 2014 spring fundraiser on the title, “Where are all the black woman lawyers?” and we decided we would build off of that. We really wanted to make sure we were doing something to impact law students to and to help them pave their own destiny.

It was that year that we decided to actually create a pipeline program and teach students how to be successful in law school. We crafted a sketch of what we wanted the pipeline program to look like and talked about the road map to get through law school — if you do extremely well in your first year, it determines what opportunities you get for the summer, which, in turn, opens the door to work in a U.S. attorney’s office, general counsel or a more coveted position. We had mentors who were involved in our careers that we sat down with and they helped us set all of this up. We had the opportunity to start the program in a pilot format at Loyola, so we jumped in headfirst in fall 2014.

CL: How did your background as a black woman lawyer influence your decision to start the program?

Harper: I’m from Chicago, born and raised, but all four of my grandparents migrated from Mississippi. My maternal grandmother picked cotton to get here, so I was raised with a sense of always having to pay it forward. You’re only as great as the people who paved the way for you, so it’s always been a guiding principle for me that you don’t get anywhere without someone giving up something for you. When we started talking about how women of color were not getting opportunities to be in law firms and companies, and how black women have been declining in the legal profession for 10 years straight, I didn’t think about what I could do, but instead what I could give up to make things better.

Boyce: I went to Howard [University School of Law, a historically black university] and Tiffany went to Washington University [in St. Louis] for law school, so we had very different experiences. One thing I credit Howard with is teaching me how to be a black lawyer, not just a lawyer. We often talked about race when we talked about cases, the state of society and how our experiences as lawyers would be different. With Tiffany, there were two, maybe three blacks in her law class. Also, I practiced at a midsize boutique law firm — I had a great experience and a great mentor who was a white man, but I didn’t see any senior women of color in legal institutions. Because I didn’t know any other lawyers aside from those I went to law school with, I knew when I moved to Chicago I needed to find a network and group of people who could help guide me throughout my career. So, I joined the Black Woman Lawyers Association and became a board member and eventual president, which is how Tiffany and I started working together. I worked with other bar associations and realized others struggled with diversity as a whole.

When Trayvon Martin was killed, no one working with me knew who he was. That was a really defining moment for me in thinking something has to be done. We realized we wanted to do more than just talk about [diversity in the legal community] and we really felt the pressure that we couldn’t wait any longer.

CL: Who gets accepted into the program and how?

Harper: We have a pretty rigorous application process. There’s no minimum GPA or LSAT score, but we do try to help women who are at risk for not completing law school. When it comes to standardized tests, African-Americans and Latinos historically do the worst, and many of them tend to enter law schools with LSAT scores at least 10 points lower than their white counterparts. This leads to people in color generally being in the bottom third of their class. A big part of our program is trying to break that correlation between a low LSAT score and low class placement. With our most recent class, we were able to break that correlation for everyone in the class. We take a lot of at-risk people, but we are really looking for self-starters and motivated people who want to be molded and groomed and are open to intensive boot camp-style instruction. After interviews and applications, we craft the class based on each participant’s academic schedule.

CL: Why is the program so important to its participants and the legal community at large?

Harper: Law firms have been failing at developing women of color forever. The attrition rate for black women is, like, 99 percent. The reason DAPP is so critical is we are doing the hard work that law firms have not been able to figure out yet. They haven’t changed their structures in the way that they recruit or retain people, and [those structures] still primarily benefit one population: white men. Even white women haven’t experienced growth in the legal profession for the past 20 years.

Boyce: [Participants] overwhelmingly say it’s been invaluable and changed their lives. The thing about people of color is that so few of us that come to law school with that being the only thing we have to worry about. Most students in our class are first-generation law students, and some are first-generation college students, so they are dealing with issues they’ve never encountered before. Not only do we help them navigate those, but we really teach them how their experiences are invaluable to the practice of law. We spend a lot of time empowering these women, but they are the architects of how their experiences will look like. All of the stats say that women of color enter the profession at high numbers, but by the third or fourth year, they are no longer practicing or have left law firms for governmental or in-house positions. That’s a benefit for those entities [governmental or in-house entities], but law firms have resources that they don’t use and allow their lawyers to do a lot of pro bono work that affects communities where our students come from.

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