Tuesday, September 18, 2007
The "Jim Crow" Legal Profession
African-American Lawyers Working as Temps in Law Firms Signals Possible Trend
High representation in contingent work may be indicative of a broader trend in which African-American lawyers, for various reasons, are opting to work for temporary staffing agencies instead of at law firms. Lack of opportunity could be a factor.
By Irwin Speizer
Julian S. Brown, president of development at legal staffing company Compliance Inc., in Arlington, Virginia, recently checked up on a job that called for five lawyers to work on a temporary assignment. Four of them, it turned out, were African-American.
"That's not rare," Brown says. "It turns out that there are a higher percentage of minority attorneys who are temping. Typically, on one of our projects, we will have 30 percent who are African-American."
The rate of participation by African-American lawyers in temporary jobs at Compliance Inc. is the opposite of the situation at most large law firms in the U.S., where only a fraction of the jobs are held by African-Americans. Brown says Compliance Inc., which is owned by international staffing company Vedior, has made no special effort to recruit African-American lawyers. Rather, he believes the situation at Compliance is indicative of a broader trend in which African-American lawyers, for various reasons, opt to work for temporary staffing agencies instead of at law firms.
"I would argue that it is not going well at law firms [for African-Americans], or else they are not getting opportunities at law firms," Brown says.
While some temporary staffing firms say they also have noticed higher participation by African-American lawyers than might be expected, others say they have either not noticed the trend or else haven't studied the ethnic makeup of their contract workers. The American Staffing Association, which conducts research on the contingent labor workforce, says it does not collect statistics on participation by African-American lawyers.
But Brown and other staffing professionals say that they are convinced that African-Americans and other minorities are clearly over-represented in the temporary legal staffing field.
Nancy Molloy, president of legal staffing company Legend Global Search Inc. in New York, says that more than 40 percent of her contract lawyers are African-American and minorities overall account for more than 60 percent of her contingent workforce. While she hires some African-American attorneys for temporary placement straight out of college, many more arrive after leaving jobs at law firms.
"There is a high turnover of African-American attorneys at law firms," Molloy says. "I think what happens is, there is no mentoring. There is just a very small percentage of partners of color."
In its 2006 survey of the private law firm workforce, the National Association for Legal Career Professionals surveyed more than 1,500 law offices around the country. Of more than 60,000 partners at those firms, only 1.5 percent were African-American. Of about 60,000 associates at those firms, 4.5 percent were African-American.
A separate study by NALP found that African-American lawyers leave jobs at law firms at a much higher rate than others. While the overall attrition rate for associates was 43 percent, it was 68 percent for African-American men and 64 percent for African-American women.
"African-Americans don't last as long at law firms," Brown says. "In terms of going from associate to partner, there are very few who make it."
Leon Spencer, an African-American lawyer from South Carolina, says he stumbled upon contingent legal work after leaving a job a few years ago with a law firm in Columbia, South Carolina. He moved to Washington in hopes of landing a job with a nonprofit or public interest group. To make ends meet, he took a temporary assignment with Compliance Inc.
"It was steady income and I could start paying down my student loans," Spencer says. He never left. Today he is a staffing director at Compliance.