About six years ago, a national study was conducted to review diversity in the law profession. Out of the 43 cities that participated in the study, Grand Rapids had the least amount of diversity, with only 1.77% of the GR lawyer population being minorities. That's pretty awful, but sometimes good things can come from bad. In response to the survey, the Grand Rapids Bar Association (GRBA) decided to create Managing Partners Diversity Collaboration, a collaborative between GRBA and 12 other law firms committing to work toward greater diversity within their teams.
Kim Coleman, executive director of GRBA, says they're in it for the long haul, starting by planting seeds and working toward recruiting and retention. The first step is to target youth, spark their interest and set up law as a viable career choice. The 3Rs Program, standing for Rights, Responsibilities and Realities, attempts to do that by sending volunteer attorneys to teach high school students about law and civics. GRBA partners with Grand Rapids Public Schools to make this program happen, and focuses on high schools with a more ethnic student population.
The second step is recruiting diverse talent, and doing that requires making Grand Rapids more appealing to young lawyers looking for a place to start their careers. Too many times the perception of Grand Rapids is that of a hyper-conservative, white, Dutch town, and young minorities completely pass over it. They'd rather be in a bigger city where they have more of a peer-base. But Grand Rapids Achieve Balance, a social media campaign, works to change that perception by highlighting the more appealing, progressive aspects of the city. Like Art Prize, the food and drink scene, community events, the low cost of rent and living...changing the focus to appeal to the younger demographic.
Lastly, retention is the final and most difficult step in creating a more diverse world of law. It's difficult because new recruits have to find roots here. They have to feel connected to the city in order to want to stay. And it's hard to compete with larger companies who are also trying to become more diverse. With the recession, law firms haven't been hiring much. But each firm is working on its own plan for retention, which usually includes mentorship and development programs.
Diversity in the law profession is important, not just because it's right, but also for practicality. You can't truly help a client when you don't understand their needs and where they came from. With a more diverse team of lawyers, you can serve a more diverse client base. Social justice comes with being a lawyer, and so law firms should be the first to work toward it within their own companies, leading the way to a better Grand Rapids in 2016.