Diversity in law: What can Grand Rapids do to keep its attorneys of color?

In a city where less than 3 percent of law partners are people of color, and as Cooley Law School graduates turn to other Michigan cities for work, what can Grand Rapids do to retain, and attract, minority attorneys?
Ogenna Iweajunwa had moved a long way from her home in Nigeria. She landed in Minnesota, and shortly afterward began dreaming of becoming a lawyer in the United States.

Iweajunwa moved to Grand Rapids to attend Western Michigan University -Thomas M. Cooley Law School. A single mother, she held down jobs while taking advantage of every academic opportunity that she could find. She interned, she worked as a clerk with Miller Johnson, and she was an assistant teacher at Cooley.

In 2015 she graduated at the top of her class, summa cum laude. She had grown to love Grand Rapids and decided it was a nice place to raise her daughter. So she applied to most of the big firms in town.

Iweajunwa didn't get a single job interview. She heard no call-backs, didn't even receive a rejection letter. "I did not hear from one single law firm. That was the most disappointing thing that's ever happened to me," she says.

The kicker of her story: She had worked as a lawyer in her native country.

Iweajunwa is one of a number of people who thought there should’ve been more to our Jan. 14 story on the Managing Partner Diversity Collaborative (MPDC), and who wished that the MPDC was doing more to transform Grand Rapids' legal world into a place where attorneys of color felt wanted and supported. Some felt that the MPDC was a repackaging of the same efforts tried in the past quarter century. Others wondered why the focus was on the "long game” but not on the more immediate hiring of new lawyers of color. Lawyers like Iweajunwa, who’ve earned their law degrees and passed the bar, wondered why they had better luck looking outside of Grand Rapids for law work.

The collaborative of the Grand Rapids Bar Association and 12 area law firms began in 2012 as a way to address the city's dismal record of gender and ethnic diversity in law. The MPDC's formation was sparked, in part, by a 2010 National Association of Law Placement (NALP) study that reported, out of 43 cities, Grand Rapids had the lowest percentage of minority partners, 1.77 percent.

In 2015 that percentage ticked up to 2.89 in Grand Rapids. NALP writes that "women and minority partners continued to make small gains" nation-wide, as the law world recovers from the recession.

The 2015 study also differentiated between minorities and found that representation of African-Americans in law has declined in some areas.

The percentage of African-American partners in Grand Rapids firms stands at 0.64 percent in the 2015 study — an increase over the 0.43 percent of African-American partners in the city reported in the NALP’s 2014 study.

The trend is beyond frustrating for some who were hoping to begin their profession in Grand Rapids. "When I see all those articles, when I see all those diversity collaborations, I don't read them. I don't really have this zeal to read them, because I feel like nothing is happening, you know?" Iweajunwa says.

She is now happy in Lansing working as a research attorney at the Michigan Court of Appeals. But getting no response from the Grand Rapids firms still stings.

"I wanted to prove myself.... Coming from another country, having an accent... not really being used to this community, you have to really prove yourself for somebody to give yourself an opportunity,” she says.

Getting no response from the GRBA collaborative's firms, the firms who say they want diversity, "was unbelievable" to her.

It's No Longer 1989

The MPDC's programs are focused on creating a pipeline of talent, starting with getting local grade school students interested in a law career, and on attracting law school grads to Grand Rapids.

Because of this focus on the long-term, the collaborative isn't expected to result in any major increase in diversity in the firms for a while. GRBA executive director Kim Coleman acknowledged in the Jan. 14 story that "it is a journey and not a destination.... These are pieces that have to be put in place before you can actually count bodies."

Grand Rapids Achieve Balance, a marketing campaign looking to attract young lawyers to the city, is a result of the collaborative. "One of the problems that we've encountered over the years is that we just don't get a look by qualified minority candidates because of their perceptions of Grand Rapids," the MPDC's Mark Smith said in January.

Dale Iverson, of JustMediation PLC, emailed the day the collaborative story went up on Rapid Growth Media. "For some of us, the situation remains frustrating, and progress is slower than is explained" by the members of the GRBA and firms interviewed, she wrote.

Iverson came to Grand Rapids in 1983 and was a partner at Smith Haughey Rice & Roegge for 19 years. She served as GRBA president in 2001, and started her own practice, focused on mediation, in 2002.

In 1989, she was among a group in the GRBA who started a minority clerkship program (which is still in place) with the Floyd Skinner Bar Association, a Grand Rapids African-American law group.

"What really stood out for me (in the article) is stuff that I heard back in 1989, when the organized bar and the law firms started working on this issue of hiring, retention and promotion (of minorities). Back then we were mostly focused on hiring, there was no story to tell about promotion or retention in law firms,” she says.

In 1989, part of the problem, it was speculated, was that Grand Rapids just didn’t attract minority professionals because the city seemed too conservative and white.

Then, and now, there was pressure from the firms’ clients to have a roster that reflected the diversity of the area.

“Here’s the funny thing about wanting to communicate we were a welcoming city back in 1989 — the larger law firms were by and large white, without a ton of connection to the diversity that did exist in the city. To many of us the city looked conservative and white. But it wasn’t! We were going to have a hard time showing diverse law students the welcome mat to Grand Rapids’ diversity when we hadn’t connected ourselves to the whole community,” Iverson says.

Now, in 2016, it seems to Iverson that the city’s image is still the main concern when it comes to getting lawyers of color into the firms.

“I didn’t see anything else that might be going on to explain this, other than, the city just doesn’t attract people of color,” she says.

"When I saw that everyone (from the MPDC) was saying, it's Grand Rapids, I thought, that's just not the whole story,” Iverson continues.

The Long Game Is Over

There are many law students and graduates in Grand Rapids already, thanks to the city’s Cooley campus — the only law school in the city.

Associate Dean of the Grand Rapids campus, Nelson MillerThe school also has campuses in Auburn Hills, Lansing, and Tampa Bay, Fla. Associate Dean of the Grand Rapids campus, Nelson Miller, says that since the GR school was opened in 2003, they worked closely with the GRBA and local firms and hired area lawyers as instructors.

"Ten of the 12 full-time faculty members are Grand Rapids lawyers. The school did this very intentionally in order to give our minority students in our practice access to the best professional network for hiring with the local firms," he says.

Miller supports the diversity collaborative's "long-game" programs. But he feels it should be doing more.

"We've been playing the long game, but the long game is over,” he says.

He knows of many minority graduates, like Iweajunwa, who wanted to stay in Grand Rapids ("that's the long game already accomplished,” he notes), but who had to move elsewhere because the area firms weren't hiring them.

"It's been a bit of a heartbreak, frankly," Miller says. "They are outstanding men and women with outstanding experiences and amazing skills."

The problem seems particularly vivid when it comes to Cooley's African-American graduates. In the first year of the MPDC initiative, Miller's staff gathered 20 resumes of black law students and sent them to the collaborative's firms.

There were no hires, and the school only received one response, from a firm's recruiting coordinator, Miller says. "She said, 'what do you want me to do with these?' That was the most productive response," he says.

"What she was really saying is, they have a way of hiring, and they were going to continue following that way of hiring,” he continues.

Miller says that firms tend to look for the standout students in their first terms, "from certain schools," recruit them into summer associate positions and clerkships, groom them over their academic careers, and hire the best out of that group.

”Well that’s fine, if you have a traditional way of doing it,” he says.

This traditional way favors students from wealthier families, students who can afford higher tuitions, students who don’t have to work a paid job and so have the time to do non-paid academic work.

“That’s why they have a non-representative group of lawyers at the firms,” Miller says. "The law firms have to open doors, rather than close them."

Other African-American Grads Speak Out

Salina Choice graduated magna cum laude in 2014.  She likes Grand Rapids and wanted to start her career at the local firms. Salina Choice

An alternative to joining a firm would be to go into private practice, but that wasn't for her. "That seemed to be the path that a lot of minority attorneys are having to take because there aren't those opportunities and availabilities in a larger firm," she says.

She did get feedback from the firms: "’You have excellent credentials, but we're just not sure we have the space.'” Choice says she was told.

“OK, I've had enough of these excuses," she says with frustration.

Choice moved to Kalamazoo to a judicial clerkship position at the 9th Division Circuit Court. She wanted to move to Detroit because "it has a lot more to offer," she says. Choice got her wish granted this month —  she’ll be practicing social security disability law in Detroit for a mid-size Massachusetts-based firm.

In the Grand Rapids firms, she thinks, "there are a lot of people higher up who aren't willing to budge on their traditional standards of how they hire. Some firms say we only hire through our clerkship programs, so you have to be a summer clerk. How does that apply to other individuals who may not come through the summer clerkship program, but who are otherwise qualified, who have the academics, have the background otherwise, who pass the bar — what do you do with that person when you say you're leaning toward diversity?" she says.

"I'm not saying that the larger firms have to lower their standards, but they have to be more realistic in that a lot of individuals, based on their backgrounds and finances, can't afford to go to the top 10 or 25 schools. Cooley is a really good school, and it's my belief that if we pass the bar, the difficult Michigan bar exam which has changed so many times, at the end of the day that's what's most important."

Lou Danner, who graduated from Cooley Law School in  2013, wanted to stay in Grand Rapids, his wife's hometown. But he's now an assistant prosecuting attorney at the Washtenaw County prosecutor's office.

After having no luck with Grand Rapids firms, he looked into work in east Michigan, where he's from. "When I applied to bigger firms in the east side of the state, larger firms than the ones on the west side, I'd at least get some kind of letter back saying, 'We got your cover letter, writing sample,' that kind of jazz," Danner says. "It wasn't as much on the west side of the state, as far as just even getting a response."

As a student clerk, Danner had a positive experience at Miller Johnson, though he did not apply there after graduation. "It was a great place to clerk at, I always felt comfortable, nobody ever made me feel like I was just there because I was black." He got the same assignments and harsh feedback that any clerk would get.

But at other offices that he looked into for clerk or employment options, he either saw no black faces, or wondered if there may be cases of tokenism.

"It's not like I need to see a bunch of black people around me all the time,” he says. “But it's one of those things, where you're not seen as just another attorney in the office."

A colleague told him he was leaving for Chicago, "because they didn't feel like they could get ahead being black and working in Grand Rapids," Danner says."

"You become that token black guy who everyone wants to show around, to show that they actually care about diversity,” he says. “...It hinders your ability to progress."

As for the collaborative, he says "all these programs are nice and fine and dandy, but when it comes down to you seeing two resumes on your desk, and you consistently don't hire the one who's black — it's not as if every black person who applies is unqualified."

He suspects that not all of the participating firms in the collaborative "take it as serious as they should." But, "all the firms can't be painted with a broad brush because some of them actually do make the effort, and just don't have the results to show for it."

Should The MPDC Dictate Hires Of Member Firms?

In response to the criticism, GRBA president Patrick Geary says that the purpose of the MPDC is to support the member firms and the profession in pipelining, attracting and retaining minority lawyers, but that "obviously, the collaborative does not hire."

They also make the "effort to share best practices... to help firms with their awareness of issues of inclusion, issues of implicit bias and how to take steps to deal with those things."

Miller and his former students are wondering, why is it that the collaborative is doing everything to help diversify its firms’ roster of lawyers, with the exception of finding ways to hire, or encouraging the hiring of, a diverse array of lawyers?

"The one thing that the collaborative has not done, and it's really not part of its purposing, is they have not gotten involved in the decisions that each member firm is going to make as to who they hire and who they don't," Geary says. "The collaborative's efforts would be intended to increase the presence of minority lawyers from whatever law school they may come from."

Geary points out that this negative reaction to the MPCD seems to focus not on the lack of minority lawyer hires, but that it's not hiring them from Cooley. Should the participating firms be "telling themselves you must interview from this law school?" he asks.

The Cooley campus was established to make legal education available in Grand Rapids to those who don't have access to top law schools, he points out.

"There are law firms, certainly, in my experience of over 40-plus years in the business, who feel it is necessary to hire from a tier of law schools that they feel are prestigious. They feel that their clients want to look at their roster and see University of Michigan.... or Yale, Harvard, or whatever it is."

This isn't every firm. "A lot of our smaller ones don't have that luxury,” Geary says.

Maybe Cooley isn't Yale, but why is it that many of its minority grads who want to stay in Grand Rapids, who interned and did clerkships at local firms, graduated with honors and passed the bar, weren't even getting responses from the collaborative firms?

"I can see how they would be frustrated," Geary says, adding that he's talked to Cooley students who “are not minority students, but they have been successful at Cooley, and feel they can't get a tumble from some of the firms in town."

"I don't know what the truth is; I haven't studied this at all, but from that I would intuit that the problem may be the perception of the school by some law firms,” he says.

Perhaps, he adds, "people wish that the collaborative solve a problem that it was never designed to solve."

Then, what problem was it designed to solve? Some are arguing that there’s a blockage between the stated goal of the MPDC, to increase diversity in Grand Rapids’ law firms, and the firms actually hiring lawyers of color. Is it that the traditions of law hiring impede people of color and lower-income students? Is it that Cooley grads — minority or not — might get ignored because their school is not considered as prestigious as other law schools? How is it that some graduates, who were at the top of their class, who did clerkships, who passed the bar, who wanted to work in Grand Rapids, weren’t even granted interviews?

What Is The MPDC’s Influence On The Hiring Of Minority Lawyers?

This all leads to the obvious question: If they're from Cooley or not, how many full-time minority lawyers have the collaborative's firms hired since the MPDC formed in 2011?

Geary again points out that many of the MPDC programs are long-range, so it likely won't show any progress yet.

Individual firms do keep records showing how diverse their staff is, and often use it as a selling point for their services, Geary says. However, he wasn't able to provide figures gathered from the firms by the GRBA or the collaborative.

So far, the only numbers Rapid Growth has are from the 2010-2015 NALP studies, showing minority partnerships in Grand Rapids going from 1.77 percent to 2.89 percent in five years, with, in the 2015 study, 0.64 of them being African-American.

Getting Around The Pretext

So, what is the placement of GR Cooley grads, in Grand Rapids firms, overall?

The dean of Cooley's campus bristles at the suggestion that Cooley students, minority or not, don't get hired.

"Every one of the firms employ graduates of this law school," Miller says, responding to Geary's comments.

"If the firms are saying, it's the law school, that's not accurate,” he continues. It is what lawyers call "pretext," Miller says. "It's the message that you hear, but it's not an accurate message."

"They can talk all they want to about Yale and Harvard, but that just simply isn't a fact,” he says.

Miller says that Grand Rapids firms have hired approximately 75 graduates of his campus since 2003, with many more from other Cooley campuses. He adds that Geary's firm, Smith Haughey, has three GR Cooley grads working full time.

How many of that number are non-minority, how many are lawyers of color?

Miller was able to confirm that his campus graduated 94 African-American lawyers since 2003. One of those 94 is employed full-time at one of the collaborative's firms.

This is not an "us versus them" situation, Miller adds in regards to Cooley and Grand Rapids law firms.

Geary says the collaborative is open to specific suggestions of improvements. "The boots on the ground folks with the collaborative are extremely receptive to different ideas. I don't think they've ever closed their ears or minds to any proposal."

So, are there any specific actions the firms and GRBA could take to make the long-game a bit more of a now-game?

"Come to campus, interview minority lawyers already committed to Grand Rapids," Miller says. "Just sit down, get to know these highly qualified, highly committed minority law students."

Miller says he respects Geary's leadership, lawyer-ship, and the dedication of the bar to this issue.

But, there is frustration. "We do everything we can to support them, and they do everything they can to support us, but it does not produce results," Miller says.

"The specifics would be: Come down, interview and hire. There's no long game necessary for that."

Mark Wedel has been a Kalamazoo-based freelance writer since 1992. More of his work and contact information can be found at http://www.markswedel.com.

Photography by Adam Bird
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