Official Publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association

Vol. 62, No. 7 | August 2005
Classifieds | Display Ads | Back to Contents

Diversity in the Profession:
Is it Still an Issue?
By  Susan M. Holden 

The retirement of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’ Connor has given us a time not only to reflect on her career and her pivotal role on the United States Supreme Court, but also to reflect on the status of women and other minorities in the legal profession. Justice O’ Connor was the first woman to serve as a justice on our nation’s highest court and in the 24 years she served as one of the nine most influential lawyers in the country, women made significant strides in the profession.

There is no doubt that there are more women attorneys working in today’s legal profession. Over the past three decades women have gone from numbering only a handful of incoming first-year law students to currently comprising more than half of their class.  Now most legal employers seek to hire women. A few firms have promoted women to their highest managing partner positions.  There are more women serving on the bench than there were even ten years ago.  Clearly there is more opportunity for women in this generation than when Justice O’ Connor graduated from Stanford Law and her first offers of employment were of the clerical variety.  The legal profession has modified its culture and become intentional about advancing diversity. 

So, is gender diversity still an issue?  Some will likely conclude that women have reached complete parity in our previously male-dominated profession, and there is no need for further discussion or effort to ensure that continues.  However, women still have not consistently or proportionately broken through the glass ceiling where the positions of greatest influence remain overwhelmingly male-dominated. 

A recent study by the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession found that women remain underrepresented in positions of the greatest status, influence and economic reward.  Women account for only approximately 15 percent of partners in law firms, 15 percent of federal judgeships, 10 percent of law school deans, less than 10 percent of general counsels, and 5 percent of managing partners of large law firms. Men are at least twice as likely as similarly qualified women to obtain partnerships.1  The under-representation of women of color is even greater.

These barriers exist not because of overt or intentional acts of discrimination, which are rarely experienced, but due to unconscious stereotypes and bias, inadequate access to support networks, and perhaps most importantly, inflexible workplace structures.

The Minnesota State Bar Association has pursued considerable efforts to eliminate bias and to promote diversity in the profession.  Since 1997 the MSBA Women in the Legal Profession (WILP) Committee has surveyed Minnesota legal employers, both private firms and public employers, in areas relating to hiring, promotion, retention, compensation, involvement in firm governance and culture, sexual harassment, and professional growth. This Self Audit for Gender Equity or “SAGE” has provided the statistical measures that became the impetus for programs to assist employers in developing their own programs to hire and retain women lawyers. The WILP Committee has published Best Practices for legal employers and has initiated an annual award for employers who do incorporate these practices and build a culture where diversity thrives.

The MSBA Diversity Committee annually provides continuing legal education courses aimed at eliminating bias and promoting diversity in the profession.  The MSBA participates in and supports the efforts of the Minority Bar Summit where leaders of the minority bars come together with bar leaders from the state and the metropolitan bar associations to discuss issues of common concern and means to further the objectives of eliminating bias in the legal profession and the court system.

With all these efforts in our state, progress has not been rapid but has been steady.  Additional efforts will be a high priority this year.  I have appointed a Task Force on Diversity in the Profession, cochaired by attorneys Leslie Altman and Michael Tracy, which will advance a significant study this year of gender and race issues in Minnesota’s legal community.

This year, through the efforts of the MSBA Task Force on Diversity in the Profession, we will expand the SAGE Program to include survey information related to race. It is my hope that by establishing a baseline in these statistics, and periodically evaluating progress or trends, we can identify issues that will provide legal employers further assistance in cultivating and retaining a diverse workforce of lawyers.

It was President Reagan’s concern over the lack of gender equity that led to Justice O’ Connor’s appointment to the Supreme Court, a move that set an example for many and opened doors for women lawyers across the country. Why is diversity in our profession important? It gives us credibility; it promotes the public’s trust and confidence in us; it makes us desirable, accessible, and approachable by all.  It is necessary in order to be responsive to the needs of the diversity of clients we represent, and thus in the end, it is good for the profession. c

1 The Unfinished Agenda: Women and The Legal Profession, report of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, 2001.

SUSAN M. HOLDEN is president of the Minnesota State Bar Association.  A partner and member of the board of directors of the Minneapolis personal injury firm of Sieben, Grose, Von Holtum & Carey, Ltd., she is certified as a civil trial specialist by the MSBA.