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Daily Journal quotes Gary Lafayette in an article examining affirmative action’s impact on the legal profession:

Eric Brooks may represent the enduring image of this country’s latest struggle over race, education and the law.

Brooks is the sole black student newly enrolled at Boalt Hall School of Law last year. He found himself in what he called that “unique and unenviable” position after 14 other black Boalt admittees declined to attend in the wake of the University of California’s decision to dismantle affirmative action.


Brooks’ situation confirms the worst fears of critics of “race-blind” admissions.  They see what is happening in California and around the country as destroying a crucial bridge between underprivileged minorities and a career in the law.

Among those who successfully made that trip was Gary Lafayette, originally from South-Central Los Angeles.  Lafayette unabashedly rode affirmative action to stellar educations at Dartmouth University and Boalt Hall.  There is no doubt, he says, that what are now attacked as unfair preferences helped him succeed.

“Without [affirmative action], I would probably be a postman,” said Lafayette, a name partner at Lafayette Kumagai & Clarke, a San Francisco firm he helped found.

But more than three decades after affirmative action became a matter of federal policy, people like Lafayette remain the rarest of the rare – not only a black lawyer but a black law-firm partner.

“There has been but very little total progress made in terms of sheer overall numbers,” said Raymond Marshall, a black partner at San Francisco’s McCutchen, Doyle, Brown & Enersen.

But it has not been for lack of trying.

Along with affirmative action in education, other systemic barriers to the field have been dropping.  For example, academics have long scoured the bar examination process in an apparently successful effort to remove the possibility of racial bias.  New evidence strongly suggests that performance on the test has much to do with the quality of the applicants’ educational experience, rather than the color of their skin.

There are also reasons for advocates of diversity to remain optimistic.  Powerful incentives remain in the legal marketplace for minority hiring, not the least of which is the growing prominence of minority decisionmakers in business.

Nevertheless, while no one knows precisely how many people like Lafayette there are in California, it is certain there are few. A survey of large law firms in the state compiled by San Francisco’s Greenlining Institute – a business-oriented coalition of minority groups – shows more than a dozen of them with no black partners at all. An even larger number of firms were devoid of Hispanic partners, and a handful had not a single black, Hispanic or Asian partner.

By way of comparison, California’s population as a whole is increasingly diverse. Hispanics make up one quarter of the state’s people, and blacks and Asians together make up another 20 percent.

That represents a gigantic legal market that some law firms may be beginning to court, according to some observers.

“Many firms tell us that they would like to diversify and have more minorities to reflect the changing society’s needs,” said Los Angeles legal recruiter Sandy Lechtick, president of Esquire Inc.

Despite that apparent self-interest, however, many discount the efforts firms are making to colorize their rosters.

“Almost every major law firm is giving lip service to affirmative action, and none are achieving it,” is the assessment of Robert Gnaizda, general counsel for the Greenlining Institute.

The National Bar Association’s Jones cited such discriminatory factors working against nonwhite lawyers as clients who are reluctant to work with minority lawyers, or “older partners” in law firms “who feel more comfortable with people who look like them.”

It can be a shock to those coming from the relatively idealistic atmosphere of college and law school campuses.

“Most minority lawyers go into a work environment really hoping that bias isn’t going to be an issue for them,” said Lafayette.

At polar opposites, however, are those who question not just the means but even the objective of increasing diversity.

“I don’t think it’s a legitimate goal,” Sharon Browne, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, said of efforts to make the legal profession mirror the population at large.

Critics such as Browne, who have fought for years against race-based affirmative action programs, say they see those efforts as themselves stereotyping and dividing people by skin color.

But others see affirmative action benefiting not only minorities but everyone.

“I think a school that doesn’t have a diverse student body is not as good a place [as] one that has a diverse student body,” said Dean Bruce Wolk of the University of California, Davis, School of Law. “As an educator, I [place] a tremendous value on diversity. There is a real value to have people with different backgrounds, to raise major issues in our society. Anybody who thinks this is a colorblind society is mistaken.”

Excerpted from Pfaff, Dennis and Michael Ueda.  “A Matter of Color: As Affirmative Action Fades, the Rainbow It Was Supposed to Paint in the Legal Profession Remains Mostly of One Hue.”  Daily Journal. 17 February 1998: n. pag. Web. 5 April 2009.