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Richard Sander is still generating debate. Last spring the University of California at Los Angeles law professor published a study, “The Racial Paradox of the Corporate Law Firm,” in which he concluded that minority lawyers are less likely than white attorneys to remain at law firms or make partner because of a “credentials gap.” The paper has been a major topic of discussion at several conferences, sometimes with Sander making an appearance to present his data and defend his conclusions. Months after first hearing of Sander’s study, many attorneys who have been involved in diversity efforts still express repugnance when asked about it. Arnold & Porter diversity committee chair William Cook calls the study “ridiculous” and says it flies in the face of reality. Duke University law professor James Coleman, a former Wilmer Cutler & Pickering partner, describes Sander’s study as “irresponsible.” And Paulette Brown, a partner at Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge who cochaired a project for the American Bar Association that resulted in a report about minority women at law firms, says that Sander’s conclusions run contrary to fact. “He should be, as an educator, ashamed of himself,” she says. Sander says the reaction does not surprise him. “Law firms are simply in denial,” he says. So what is it about the study that so riles these lawyers? “It’s Sander’s conclusions�not his data�that are being challenged,” says Coleman, who in March debated Sander at a business development retreat that Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld organized for its African American partners and clients. In fact, most attorneys interviewed accept the data, which shows high attrition and consequently low partnership rates among minority associates�especially among African Americans. Sander uses the statistics to show that these minorities often feel cut off from opportunities that lead to success: the chance to work on matters that teach legal skills; access to a strong mentor; and candid and constructive feedback. But Sander concludes that the underlying reason is that law firms, intent on hiring more lawyers of color, lower their standards. They bring in minority law school graduates who have lower grades than their white counterparts, he says. And because of this credentials gap, the minority associates don’t have what it takes to remain on the partnership track. “It is indisputable that the larger the credentials gap between minority and white associates, the greater the likelihood that a given minority associate will turn out not to measure up,” Sander wrote in the North Carolina Law Journal, where his study was published in May 2006. Ironically, when Sander’s article first appeared, it generated minimal reaction. But last November, The New York Times printed a page one story about it, prompting America’s corporate law firms to take notice. “The study itself was a nonevent,” said Ralph Martin, a partner at Bingham McCutchen who is cochair of the firm’s diversity committee. “But the Times article definitely raised eyebrows.” Many partners were offended by Sander’s conclusions, and law firm hiring and diversity committees were annoyed. At Holland & Knight, lawyers active in the firm’s recruiting efforts discussed whether they should change any of their practices in light of the study, says Paul Thomas, the partner who oversees diversity efforts at the firm. But they concluded that no changes were needed because the study was inaccurate. “Grades are only one of a number of factors we take into account when hiring,” says Thomas. “And we’re very satisfied with the quality of our people�minority and nonminority.” Bingham McCutchen chairman Jay Zimmerman wrote an impassioned memo to everyone in his firm, in which he stated that the Sander study perpetuates several negative stereotypes that have nothing to do with the way that Bingham and many of its peer firms hire lawyers or select partners. “By the time one of our lawyers is being considered for partnership, grades are almost irrelevant,” he wrote. Several partners concede that grades are considered in hiring, but plenty of other factors�law review, extracurricular activities, interview performance, initiative, signs of being a team player�are heavily weighted as well. And these factors are taken into account for all candidates, not just minorities, they say. But it’s clear that minority associate attrition at elite law firms�especially among African Americans�is higher than among white associates. Partners say they recognize this fact, but they offer other explanations to account for the discrepancy. Sometimes minority associates leave because they aren’t given challenging assignments or opportunities to develop the skills needed to advance, says Edwards Angell’s Brown. Sometimes an old-boy network mentality makes minority associates feel as if they can’t fit in, says Arnold & Porter’s Cook. And sometimes minority associates leave for other opportunities, such as jobs as in-house counsel or in the public sector. “Many associates come to big firms for credential-building experience rather than a career,” says Morrison & Foerster chairman Keith Wetmore. Still, the controversy over Sander’s conclusions hasn’t died down. At the annual corporate counsel conference of the National Bar Association’s commercial law section in February, several hundred lawyers attended a three-hour town hall meeting focused on diversity and the Sander study. At the Black Law Students Association’s (BLSA) Northeast Regional Convention, also in February, a session entitled, “Do Firms Lower Their Standards for Blacks?” included a discussion of the Sander study. In March, Sander addressed a meeting of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, speaking about the negative effects of employment preferences on minority attorneys [see "Building Diversity, Breaking the Law?," page 10]. And then there was the Sander-Coleman debate at the Akin Gump event. “The partners and general counsel there�and these are African Americans with extraordinary resumes�were disgusted with the irresponsibility of what Sander was doing and with his failure to acknowledge the complexity of the issues he’s dealing with,” says Coleman. But if most partners dismiss the study’s conclusions, why has Sander sparked such an outcry? “Because the subject of law firm diversity hits a raw nerve in our profession,” says Akin Gump chairman R. Bruce McLean. “And while San-der’s conclusions are wrong, his data reminds us that while we’ve made progress in diversifying law firms, we’re not where we need to be.” The firms that have been the most successful in hiring and retaining minority lawyers have well-established mentoring programs, several partners say. They have attorneys assigned to watch associates’ progress and ensure that they are given challenging assignments, prompt feedback, and opportunities to develop the skills needed to advance. “We hire people who are qualified to do the work,” says Holland & Knight’s Thomas, who is African American. “But continued support is where the difference is made.” Edwards Angell’s Brown says the danger of Sander’s study is that it provides fodder for anyone predisposed to think that diversity efforts cannot succeed. “It gives people ready excuses to blame someone else for failure,” adds Veta Richardson, executive director of the Minority Corporate Counsel Association. As for Sander, he says that law firm partners refuse to see any correlation between grades and performance. “Everyone is running from the implications of the data,” he says. “They’re playing this game in which they’re trying to placate the constituencies that want diversity but are not taking ownership or responsibility for the disastrous results of their actions.” The UCLA professor adds that he is not surprised to see partners react this way and does not expect to see them change their practices voluntarily. “This issue is too political,” he says. “Not much will change until one of these big law firms is sued.”

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