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Minorities making moves, but diversity stagnant

Last month, Sharita Whitaker, an attorney with Smith Anderson in Raleigh, traveled to the Yale Club of New York City for the Chambers and Partners’ inaugural Chambers Diversity Awards. She walked away as the winner in the Future Leader — Minority Lawyers (Private Practice) category.

According to the Chambers and Partners’ website, the award marks the achievement of excellence “in furthering the advancement of diversity and inclusion in the legal profession.”

“We firmly believe that, by raising awareness and empowering the people committed to bringing about change, together we can start a new chapter with equal opportunities for everyone,” the website reads.

In a profession that the American Bar Association says is well over 80 percent white (and still predominately male, though women are gaining ground), there should be no shortage of awareness to raise or people to be empowered.

Whitaker is one of a handful of minority lawyers in a firm of about 130 attorneys, a statistic that seems to be in line with other law firms across the Carolinas and the nation.

In 2015, the Minority Corporate Counsel Association and Vault, which ranks and reviews employers, conducted its annual Law Firm Diversity Survey and found that — at least among the five Carolinas-based firms that participated — not much has changed in recent years, at least statistically speaking.

The survey requests the race, ethnicity and gender of a firm’s attorneys, and includes a designation for those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

Around the Carolinas

At Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice — North Carolina’s largest firm and the sixth-largest in South Carolina — six of the firm’s 177 equity partners fall into a minority category. Twenty-two of 117 associates fit that bill.

Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, the Palmetto State’s largest firm, boasts six minority partners of its 158 revenue-sharers.

Smith Moore Leatherwood has four offices in North Carolina and two in South Carolina. Of 79 partners, one — an African-American woman — is a minority.

Blaine Sanders is a partner at Robinson Bradshaw in Charlotte (the firm also has operations in Chapel Hill and Rock Hill, South Carolina) and chairs the firm’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee. His firm considers diversity to include race, gender and LGBT.

The first openly LGBT lawyer at RBH will begin working there after clerking with the firm the last two summers.

Sanders is not a minority by any definition, but he believes that creating a firm whose demographic doesn’t necessarily look like him is paramount for several reasons: Diverse teams are more creative and come up with better solutions; clients increasingly are asking for diverse teams to handle their matters; and, simply, it’s the right thing to do.

“Our percentage (of minority lawyers) has gone up slightly in recent years, though I’d like to say that it’s gone up dramatically,” Sanders said. “What I feel good about is that we’ve had a huge increase in minorities coming up in leadership positions in the firm — from one to five partners. We now have three women on our board of directors, and one is a minority. We have two main departments in the firm and Rob Harrington is the head of litigation.”

Until 2007, Harrington, an African-American, was the firm’s only minority partner, the second in the firm’s history. Then Angelique Vincent-Hamacher, a black woman, joined Harrington. (Disclosure: Vincent-Hamacher is married to the author, Heath Hamacher.) In recent years, RBH has added a black man, a black woman and an Indian man.

Vincent-Hamacher is also the minority woman Sanders spoke about who serves on the board of directors, a position to which she was recently elected. She is the third woman and the first African-American to serve on the board.

Seek and employ

According to Kerry Shad, Smith Anderson partner and co-chair of the firm’s diversity committee, the firm has been intentional about increasing diversity, and she believes it’s working. Included in the firm’s definition of diversity, she said, are women, racial and ethnic minorities, and LGBT attorneys. She said the firm will add two more minority attorneys next month and currently employs three LGBT lawyers, including herself.

“Our firm is more diverse now than ever before,” Shad said, adding that support and leadership opportunities are key for those lawyers’ retention and success.

“For example, we sponsored Justin Truesdale’s successful application to the North Carolina Bar Association’s Leadership Academy, which is highly competitive,” Shad said.

Partner Caryn McNeill, a white woman, was recently chosen president-elect of the North Carolina Bar Association and will serve as its 123rd president.

Whitaker, a member of the firm’s Real Estate Development Group who discovered her love for real estate while growing up in Raleigh’s housing projects, also serves as co-chair of the North Carolina Bar Association’s Minorities in the Profession Committee. The MIP exists to promote the increased presence and education of minorities in the legal profession, and to educate the public about the contributions of minority lawyers.

Unique experience, perspective

Both Sanders and Shad said that their firms are highly proactive in their mission to seek and retain diverse attorneys. Both firms offer mentoring programs to help guide minority associates. Both firms recruit, to some degree, from a predominantly minority school, the North Carolina Central University School of Law, and from the annual Southeastern Minority Job Fair in Atlanta.

Smith Anderson is one of a handful of firms that employs a director of professional development, recruiting and diversity.

Unlike many firms, Sanders said, RBH hires first-year law students as summer associates because it gives them “a good shot at strong, first-year minority candidates.” It has added Emory University and its more diverse student body as a recruitment target.

Yet, as Sanders acknowledges, “Overall numbers for the profession are not good.”

In a 2010 blog, Harrington — one of RBH’s four black partners who also serves on its inclusion committee — noted that the ABA’s observations on diversity range from the “democracy rationale” to the “business rationale.”

The democracy rationale, as described by the ABA: “Without a diverse bench and bar, the rule of law is weakened as the people see and come to distrust their exclusion from the mechanisms of justice.”

The business rationale states that, “It makes good sense to hire lawyers who reflect the diversity of citizens, clients, and customers from around the globe. Indeed, corporate clients increasingly require lawyer diversity and will take their business elsewhere if it is not provided.”

The ABA added that despite the obvious benefits to a diverse law firm, in many instances, the legal profession needs to catch up to its corporate counterparts.

Operating in a global market, Shad said, it is important for her firm to reflect the clients and communities it serves.

“Everyone brings a unique experience and perspective to an organization, and it is well understood that when organizations value and incorporate diverse perspectives they are stronger, more nimble and more effective in achieving their goals,” she said.

Sanders agreed.

“At the end of the day, you get better solutions for the client when you have diverse teams working on their project,” he said.

So what’s the holdup?

According to the ABA, nearly as many women as men are enrolled in law school. Of the 146,000 or so students, nearly a quarter are minorities. Yet depending on what survey you rely, minorities only make up somewhere between 12 and 20 percent of the country’s associates (just over 12 percent in the Charlotte, area) and a much lower percentage of partners. According to a 2015 poll conducted by the National Association for Law Placement, about 4.75 percent of law partners in Charlotte, are minorities. Wilmington was nominally higher at 4.95 percent, but well below the national average of 7.52 percent.

No data was available for South Carolina cities.

One obstacle faced by law firms here is the competition with legal markets that are already more diverse — Atlanta, New York and the District of Columbia, for example — and therefore more attractive to qualified candidates.

“The challenge is that there is a relatively small pool of diverse candidates and it’s very competitive to try to recruit those candidates” Sanders said. “We need to try to increase the pool. We need to go to different schools to recruit than we have historically.”

Historically, according to the survey RBH completed, the firm recruits from top-tier law schools such as Duke, North Carolina, Vanderbilt, Harvard and Georgia. A glance at Smith Anderson’s lawyer directory suggests that they pull from a similar class of school, with a heavy concentration of Duke, UNC and Wake Forest law graduates.

And ‘justice for all’

Whitaker, the Smith Anderson attorney, has an atypical background compared to many who share her profession. The oldest of 12 children, she grew up in housing projects before graduating summa cum laude from North Carolina State University and magna cum laude from NCCU law.

Shad said the firm is impressed by Whitaker in everything she’s accomplished in both her personal and professional life.

“She is everything a lawyer should be — dedicated to providing excellent service to her clients, and passionate about improving our community and the profession by promoting diversity,” Shad said. “She inspires us all to be better lawyers and people.”

Vincent-Hamacher, who serves alongside Sanders on RBH’s diversity committee, hails from a working-class family and is a graduate of Duke University and Harvard Law School.

Sanders admitted that increasing diversity in the legal profession can be challenging.

The talent is out there — it’s just a matter of finding it, nurturing it and retaining it.

“We want to make sure that we keep the conversation going about diversity and inclusion because it’s just so important in America right now,” Sanders said. “To allow people to be confident in the legal system and know that there’s justice for all.”

And a place in the legal profession.

Follow Heath Hamacher on Twitter @SCLWHamacher

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