Published in Economic Development

Legal profession makes DEI gains as Grand Rapids market lags

BY Sunday, April 10, 2022 06:06pm

A $20,000 Warner Norcross + Judd LLP scholarship for a second-year law student aims to promote greater diversity in the legal profession.

From the left: Carin Ojala, Mark Wassink

The Grand Rapids-based law firm also intends to offer the recipient a 2023 summer associate position at one of its nine offices in Michigan with the “hope that they join us” after earning their law degree, although it’s not a requirement, said Managing Partner Mark Wassink.

In offering the scholarship and summer associate position to law students who identify as a racial minority, LGBTQIA+, or with a disability, Warner Norcross “goes beyond mere words” to support diversity, Wassink said.

The idea for the scholarship grew out of the firm’s 26-member Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Action Committee consisting of law partners and associates.

“We kind of charged everybody to come up with something we can do that’s new and maybe improves what we’re doing now,” Wassink said. “We had a few scholarships for law students and for students who were going to take the (Law School Admission Test), those types of things. They would get posted at law schools, but they were like one grand or a couple grand here or there, and we never got a whole lot of applicants. So we thought: ‘How can we do better at this?’”

That better idea was creating a larger scholarship for underrepresented groups, “which is hopefully enough to grab someone’s attention,” Wassink said.

“We know having a diverse law firm with diverse people here makes us a better place and it makes the Bar a better place with more diverse attorneys. It also is more reflective of our clients these days. More of our clients are more diverse, and all of those things kind of combine together and is something that we feel is important, not just for the law firm, but for the (profession) and business in general,” Wassink said. “We hear from some of our large clients: ‘Tell us about your diversity. Tell us about your diversity efforts. We want to see what you’re doing.’”

Warner Norcross accepts applications for the scholarship through June 30. The law firm will notify the winner on July 11.

GR market lagging

The law firm’s scholarship represents one more example in the legal profession’s drive for greater diversity as data indicate the Grand Rapids-area market lags national metrics.

In 2021, women accounted for 23.4 percent of law partners in Grand Rapids, and people of color represented 4.3 percent, according to an annual report by the Washington, D.C.-based National Association for Law Placement (NALP), an association of legal professionals that reports data for 38 markets. Female minorities accounted for 1.1 percent of law partners in 2021 in Grand Rapids.

Those numbers have improved from five years ago, when 19.8 percent of law partners in Grand Rapids were women and 2.3 percent were minorities. Less than 1 percent were minority women, according to NALP data.

Nationally, women in 2021 accounted for 25.9 percent of partners at law firms and nearly 10.8 percent were people of color. Female minorities represented 4.1 percent of law partners nationwide, according to NALP.

Among associates at law firms in Grand Rapids as of last year, 47.5 percent were women — an increase of nearly 10 percentage points from five years earlier — and 17.8 percent were minorities, up by 5 percentage points from 2016, according to the NALP. Nearly 11 percent of law associates in Grand Rapids were women of color.

As with the rest of the nation, Grand Rapids has made steady, incremental gains over the years in the NALP’s annual diversity report, although the market is “a little behind to where the rest of the country is” and the improvements over the years are “not enough,” said Carin Ojala, director of recruiting and professional development at Warner Norcross + Judd.

Still, the difference since Ojala started at the law firm 28 years ago is “night and day” compared to today’s practices, policies and a conducive workplace environment, she said. Back then, just a few women were law partners at the firm.

As of 2020, more than a quarter of Warner Norcross + Judd’s law partners are women, according to the firm’s most recent annual diversity report.

Ojala expects the legal profession to continue making gains on diversity, especially as law associates eventually move into partner positions.

“I think we’re going to see huge, huge changes in the next 20 years, and I base that on the huge changes that I’ve seen in the 20 years that have passed,” Ojala said.

‘Create that culture’

Creating greater diversity is about much more than setting and meeting hiring targets, Ojala said. Firms need to “create that culture first and continue to enhance that culture before you can just bring people in,” she said.

“Metrics are important, but what we are trying to do is create a place where people feel like they belong at our firm, and with the increased belonging, we can attract new talent,” Ojala said. “The focus is people feel they can bring their whole selves to work.”

Across the U.S., the percentage of women, minority and LGBTQ associates at law firms grew 5 points from 2020 to 2021, the single largest one-year gain in the 29 years the NALP has published an annual diversity report.

The summer associate class nationwide in 2021 “was the most diverse ever measured in every way, and it holds the promise of a law firm world that is truly more diverse, equitable, and inclusive,” NALP Executive Director James Leipold said in the report that was issued in January.

“The challenge for the industry is to retain, train, develop, and promote this talented and diverse pool of new lawyers so that five years from now the associate ranks as a whole reflect similar diversity and representation, and 10 or 15 years from now we can celebrate a partnership class that is similarly diverse,” Leipold said. 

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