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Massachusetts’ leaders often like to contrast the state in importance with Washington, D.C., cloaking local opinion makers in the robes and roles of influence. What happens in the Bay State’s capital is important in the nation’s, and vice versa. Which makes it hard to fathom why an issue that has roiled the highest court in America has barely made the radar screen in Boston. Just three years ago, on the marble steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, demonstrators agitated for justice — not for the public at large, but for minority representation in court clerkships. Representatives from several national advocacy groups, including the NAACP, staged a high-profile protest in response to the historically low number of minority law clerks employed by the nine justices. The result was a renewed emphasis on insuring diversity among the court’s clerks. For a while, Boston’s legal leaders murmured and conferred about addressing the issue locally. But, as time has shown, the repercussions from that clamorous public grievance did not resonate in the Bay State with any tangible, lasting effect. While Boston’s largest law firms have made substantial efforts to improve their record of minority hiring — including funding and promoting an organization called the Boston Lawyers Group that works only to promote law firm diversity — the state’s judiciary seems to have done almost nothing to address the issue among judicial clerks. LITTLE TO SHOW Local minority groups recognize diversity in judicial clerkships as a problem, but they assert that there has been no substantial gain since the issue first came to light. Indeed, several local advocates, who support clerkship diversity and believe minorities to be under-represented, say they are hard-pressed to point to any ongoing efforts to assess or remedy the problem. The issue, they say, has not reached a threshold to inspire vigilant advocacy groups to actively review the number of minority clerks in Massachusetts. But that paucity of representation means that the state’s judiciary lacks a broad understanding of diverse viewpoints. When Reena I. Thadhani, now an associate at Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo in Boston, was clerking at the Massachusetts Court of Appeals in 1995 and 1996, the topic of clerk diversity was a concern among her fellows. And from her experience as a clerk, she asserts that judges acknowledge inadequate minority representation. But what is it — specifically — that minority inclusion brings to the court? Thadhani describes it this way: “Do I have a better [perspective]? No. But do I have a different one? Yes.” Yet, her kind of perspective isn’t one to which many local judges are likely to be exposed. According to the National Association of Legal Placement (NALP), there were a total of 33 federal clerkships in Massachusetts taken by the nationwide graduating law class of 2000. Of the 33 positions, only one clerkship was occupied by a minority graduate, an Asian-Pacific Islander. There were 83 state judicial clerkships taken by the 2000 class. Only 12 of those clerkships, or 14.5 percent, were occupied by minority graduates: four blacks (4.8 percent), two Hispanic (2.4 percent), five Asian-Pacific Islanders (6.0 percent), and one Native American (1.2 percent). Despite such low numbers, judicial law clerk diversity is a stealth issue in Massachusetts. Advocacy groups are not eager to track the problem; law schools are not eager to report it; and the courts reflect a lack of interest. LOOKING THE OTHER WAY In 1998, under the leadership of Roderick Ireland, associate justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, several state courts, in conjunction with local law schools, conducted the Minority Clerk Forum. The purpose was to establish the value of clerking and to encourage minority participation. The first forum attracted 150 law students and was considered effective by its sponsor, but the effort didn’t approach what some critics believe is critical to an effective program: sustainability. Indeed, another such forum wouldn’t be scheduled until nearly four years — tentatively planned for next month. And that is the extent of effort that the court has made in the past few years. Justice Ireland declined to comment for this story. The issue is one that gets lip service every few years, but which never seems to see much actual movement. For example, it was briefly touched upon by the Commission to Study Ethnic and Racial Bias in the Courts, which produced the 1994 report, “Equal Justice: Eliminating the Barriers,” according to Renee M. Landers, counsel at Ropes & Gray, and the Boston Bar Association’s representative on the commission. A similar commission, called the Race and Ethnic Access and Fairness Advisory Board, has begun work to raise the issue again, but has not set a publication date for its findings. Indeed, the topic sometimes seems to be one that Massachusetts is studiously trying to avoid. When contacted by The Law Tribune, several local law schools’ career service representatives claimed they don’t keep records by race or ethnicity of clerkship placements. But almost every ABA-accredited law school provides exactly those figures to NALP. A SHALLOW POOL? While clerkships are not restricted to Massachusetts law school graduates, the breadth of Boston-area law schools and their students’ familiarity with Bay State law make them the prime candidate pool for minority lawyers and clerks. That pool, however, is shallow. At Suffolk University Law School, for example, only 9.3 percent of the 494 students graduated in 2000 were minorities: 11 black (2.2 percent), 12 Hispanic (2.4 percent), 22 Asian (4.5 percent), and one American-Indian (.2 percent). The situation is better, but still low, at Boston College Law School, which in 2002 graduated 305 students. Of those, 18.4 percent were minorities: 18 black (5.9 percent), 15 Hispanic (4.9 percent), and 22 Asian (7.2 percent). Clearly, the low representation in the law school graduating classes is a limiting factor in the number of minority judicial clerkships. But minority graduates are not filling clerkships in similar numbers as their law school graduation rates, especially at the federal level. Peter DeCambre, 2001 president of the Massachusetts Black Lawyers Association, says the reason for that is simple: money. With high law school debt, he argues, minority lawyers are shunning low-paying clerkships for the more lucrative world of private practice. A Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court clerk salary is $45,573. Meanwhile, within six months of graduation the median private sector salary for Boston University law school graduates’ in 2000 was $122,500. “The debt issue is a huge factor,” DeCambre proclaims. But Tracey M. Hubbard Rentas disagrees with that perspective. The former regional president of the Hispanic National Bar Association and an associate at Boston’s Choate, Hall & Stewart, she says she believes that many minority law students enter school with the intention of pursuing public advocacy careers. Indeed, she asserts that many minority law school graduates move directly to lower-paying legal advocacy jobs — a fact that, she says, negates the financial incentive argument. However, Hubbard Rentas does see a problem, even for students who aren’t motivated by the financial aspects of the profession. Many minority lawyers who want to move into advocacy roles don’t understand how a judicial clerkship can be part of that career path, she says. And she and others claim that there is no concerted effort to show them how it can, or should, be part of it. There is widespread agreement that the benefits of clerking need to be reinforced for minority students by schools, practicing attorneys, courts and advocacy groups. For graduates, a clerkship is a year to improve writing, gain confidence, be mentored by a judge, and learn the courtroom process from the inside. Those are valuable skills regardless of the chosen career path, observers point out. Yet, minority students are “not well-informed of the value of furthering their careers,” via a clerkship, says Willie Rodriguez, executive director of La Alianza Hispana, a local community group. Rodriguez believes there must be a concerted effort, with “sustainability … given some curriculum teeth,” he says. Career placement offices at Boston-area law schools have programs highlighting clerkships, but none contacted by The Law Tribune specifically focused on minority students. Deidre Downes, a third-year Harvard law student and Northeast regional secretary of the Black Law Student Association, maintains that the school tries to make information about clerkships available to all its students — although there is no effort specifically directed at minority students. STANDARDIZED TEST Some judges have defended the lack of clerk diversity by claiming the application process does not allow questions of race or ethnicity. But judges can, in most cases, identify minority students through association memberships and foreign language ability. The judicial hiring process is an obvious focal point to address diversity in clerking. Margaret A. Burnham, former director of the National Conference of Black Lawyers and a partner at Burnham & Hines in Boston, has worked on the issue at the national level. “Judges take the position that they hire the best candidates … end of position,” Burnham states. Many federal and state courts establish a minimum grade point average and refuse to entertain applicants not reaching that strict standard. Hubbard Rentas suggests that a value beyond grades should be established. Many minority students must work to support themselves throughout law school. When 20 to 30 hours a week are devoted to non-school work, grades invariably suffer. “There is more merit beyond grades … the struggle is not recognized,” Hubbard Rentas says.

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