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VOL. 122 | NO. 28 | Thursday, February 15, 2007

Legal Community Tries to Firm Up Minority Recruitment Efforts

By Amy O. Williams

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IN SESSION: Christopher Ingram leaves the U of M law school building after class Wednesday. He's a second-year law student. -- Photo By Amy O. Williams

Ben Adams believes in diversity. As chairman and chief executive officer of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC, Adams and others at the Memphis-based firm work hard year-round to recruit and retain minorities.

And all of that recruiting, training and mentoring goes toward one cause - ensuring one of the largest law firms in the country is diverse.

"It's very important to us," Adams said. "We spend a lot of energy trying to recruit, retain and help develop minority lawyers to their maximum potential."

Baker Donelson recruits minorities by targeting traditionally black law schools and by sending lawyers out to recruiting fairs and minority job fairs all over the country.

"So we try to put ourselves in the maximum number of positions that we can to identify and recruit good minority candidates," Adams said.

Improving the odds

At the University of Memphis' Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, minority students make up about 18 percent of enrollment, said Sue Ann McClellan, assistant dean for admissions.

She said the majority of those students are black, but other ethnicities also are represented. That number is not far from statistics nationwide.

Nationally, Hispanic, black, Native-American and Asian-American students made up about 20 percent of people admitted to law schools in 2006, according to the Pennsylvania-based Law School Admissions Council, a nonprofit corporation with 200 member law schools in the United States and Canada.

But Adams said in this part of the country, black students are the most underrepresented in private practice. Of the 458 attorneys at Baker Donelson, Adams said 34, or 7 percent, are minorities other than women. Women lawyers make up 29 percent, or 134, of the firm's attorneys.

"We've got some work to do," Adams said.

Sowing seeds of success

But part of what Baker Donelson and other law firms are trying to do starts before minority students ever get in to law school. That's where Yolanda Ingram comes in. She is the assistant dean for student affairs at the U of M law school.

Ingram also is the director of the Tennessee Institute for Pre-Law (TIP), a state-funded summer program operated by the U of M's law school and the University of Tennessee-Knoxville College of Law. TIP is a law school preparation program for minority candidates, but Ingram said the program no longer defines "minority" the same way.

"It's definitely changed," she said. "Really, we are no longer just looking for minorities; we're looking for diversity and how to make our class more diverse.

"And it seems like the definition of diversity is evolving almost on a day-to-day basis." The law school has set specific guidelines for how it defines diversity.

A diverse student body, according to the U of M's guidelines, is one that includes students from various racial, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, Ingram said. It also includes students who are graduates of historically black colleges and universities, students from rural and inner-city areas, students who are first-generation college graduates, foreign-born or first-generation citizens, as well as students with physical disabilities.

Recruit and retain

To attract candidates to the U of M law school, Ingram said she attends recruiting fairs and events, and relies heavily on word of mouth.

Once students complete the program, they are admitted to their first year of law school.

And law firms such as Baker Donelson are there to help minority students pay for law school with scholarships once they get there.

"We support minority scholarships at law schools, because that is one of the big problems - law schools are fighting the pipeline problems," Adams said.

The schools, he said, are trying to figure out if there are enough minority candidates coming to law school - and even applying to law school.

"They are really working on that, and there's clearly not enough," Adams said. "So we're in the game of recruiting as many as we can, and then once we recruit them, we do the best we can to help them succeed."

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