Legal employers can help improve diversity by joining ACBA Summer Clerkship Program

September 14, 2018
President’s Message By Bryan Neft

Katie Jacobs is a director in the litigation department at Cohen & Grigsby. She has also served on the ACBA Judiciary Committee and as treasurer of the Homer S. Brown Division. She hails from Virginia and graduated from Pitt Law more than 10 years ago. To hear her tell it, the ACBA Summer Clerkship Program for first-year minority law students and her experience working in a corporate law department gave her an edge during on-campus recruiting and her opportunity with Cohen & Grigsby for a second-year summer associate position.

Jacobs was a summer clerk for Highmark’s legal department, where she reviewed contracts. Although she recognized that contract drafting was not her desired field, this corporate experience helped shape her goals and likely played a role in Cohen & Grigsby’s decision to consider her for an on-campus interview. The program gave her experiential training in a legal environment where she could learn how lawyers practice. This enabled her to compete for coveted second-year summer associate positions in Pittsburgh.

Tynishia Powell is associate counsel at the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority. She served as co-chair of the ACBA’s Committee for Diversity and Inclusion, is a member of the Gender Bias Subcommittee and the Homer S. Brown Division Council and served as a presenter at a seminar at Pitt Law on anti-bias for the Women in the Law Division. Originally from Florida, Powell graduated from Duquesne Law in 2016. She, too, participated in the summer clerkship program, and she lauds the experience it provided her as a clerk at Tucker Arensberg.

After her first year of law school, Powell was somewhat discouraged and unsure if she wanted to continue law school. The clerkship program helped her change her mind. The law-firm experience showed her what the practice of law was really like. She was able to act as a problem-solver on different legal issues, and she got exposure to clients where she was able to learn some of the finer points in the art of client management. Getting a taste of the legal profession not only gave her a boost of confidence that encouraged her to continue law school – it was a stepping stone for obtaining a clerkship position with the Patent and Trademark office in Alexandria, Va., after her second year of law school. Powell returned to Pittsburgh after the clerkship in Virginia because she found our home to be a dynamic city in which to live and practice law – and she wanted to be part of growing a diverse legal community.

Both Jacobs and Powell found that one of the best aspects of the summer clerkship program was the opportunity to expand their networks by making connections with practicing attorneys and other first-year students in the program. They both felt that the other first-year students provided a support network while the lawyers served as resources for their future careers. Since its inception in 2005, the ACBA Summer Clerkship Program has provided to minority students an opportunity to work in the profession after their first year of law school so they can become more competitive when seeking positions after their second year. The program also seeks to integrate those students into the Pittsburgh legal community to contribute to the city’s overall diversity. Although the legal profession in Allegheny County has made great strides in diversity over the last 15 years, significant work still needs to be done to increase diversity.

The United States has increasingly become more diverse. Pittsburgh, however, has trailed the nation in diversity. While nationally, 25 percent of the workforce is diverse (the benchmark definition includes African-Americans, Asians and Hispanics), Pittsburgh struggles to maintain diversity at 14 percent of the workforce. The statistics for the legal profession in Pittsburgh are lower. Corporate employers see the need for diversity to continue growth and to attract new investment. These employers understand that divergent ideals and perspectives create better solutions to issues confronting employers. Diversity and equal opportunity also have been cornerstones of the ACBA’s mission statement and our Code of Professionalism. As a result, the bar association has championed diversity for many years – through its Committee for Diversity and Inclusion, the Institute for Gender Equality and offerings such as the summer clerkship program.

With these goals in mind, the Board of Governors recently moved to expand the scope of the summer clerkship program. While the program began initially to assist African American, Asian and Hispanic students, over the years our sense of what constitutes diversity has changed. Other groups of individuals – such as lawyers with disabilities and those that identify as LGBT, too – may lack meaningful opportunities to work in the profession over the summer. It was against this backdrop that the Board of Governors decided this year to include additional diverse groups in the summer clerkship program with the thought that we should help all groups of individuals that may be disadvantaged in the hiring process.

The ACBA is not alone in its initiatives to increase diversity in the profession. A number of our largest law firms and corporate legal departments, along with our local law schools, have created the Pittsburgh Legal Diversity & Inclusion Coalition with a mission to promote regional economic growth by supporting employers in the greater Pittsburgh area to increase the hiring, retention and inclusion of legal professionals from a variety of diverse backgrounds. The creation of this coalition, with goals similar to ours, demonstrates that we are on the right track.

We have been fortunate to have approximately two dozen dedicated employers that have consistently participated in the summer clerkship program. But with the increase in the pool of those eligible to participate in the program comes a need to attract new employers to offer summer clerkship opportunities. We cannot afford to lose those candidates who are trying hard to break into our market but may need some help to do it.

I asked Jacobs and Powell why they thought it was important for law firms, corporate counsel, governmental agencies and public legal agencies to participate in the ACBA’s summer clerkship program for minority students. Jacobs said that part of our obligation as attorneys is to foster diversity. See ACBA Code of Professionalism, Part I.B. (“A lawyer should understand that the best interests of the profession and the clients that he or she serves depend, in substantial part, on the judgments and divergent experiences of lawyers that are drawn from a diverse pool of individuals.”). Not only does diversity improve our own law firms, it translates into improvement of our larger Pittsburgh community. Powell said we need to create in Pittsburgh a legal community that keeps up with the diversity level of the city. In many instances, clients are looking for diversity in the law firms that they choose.

Knowing the generosity of our members, my hope is that many of you and your firms or legal departments will sign up to host a minority summer clerk for the summer of 2019. With the changes in the scope of the program, we expect to provide employers a greater role in the selection of candidates. We anticipate that the revised selection process would be relatively straightforward: applicants would choose firms in which they are interested, and firms would choose applicants in whom they are interested from those who have chosen them. The prospective employers then would interview the selected candidates and offer one or more of them a position for the summer. We recommend a minimum commitment of six to eight weeks over the summer and compensation of $800 per week. Importantly for employers, there is no obligation to hire first-year summer clerks after the clerkship concludes.

Over the next couple of months, members of an ad hoc committee that I put together will be reaching out to law firms, corporate legal departments and various government offices to ask for participation in the program. I believe that many of us feel strongly that we should encourage greater diversity in our profession and in Pittsburgh and will agree to help us with this important initiative. In the meantime, if you have questions about the program, please contact me or the ACBA Director of Diversity and Gender Equality Alysia Keating.