October 23, 2014

Florida Law

Seeding Diversity in Law School Applicants

Bilzin Sumberg aims to spark an interest among minority students in pursuing a law career in south Florida.

Art Levy | 2/1/2010

Last fall, Bilzin Sumberg hosted 50 high school students for a day of law classes, mock trials, pizza and the promise of future mentoring

Three years ago, Marshall R. Pasternack looked around a conference table at Miami’s Bilzin Sumberg Baena Price & Axelrod and conceded that the law firm had a long way to go before the diversity of its workforce matched south Florida’s diversity. Figuring it was time to get serious about attracting a broader range of attorneys, the firm launched a series of initiatives. For one, it began inviting minority law students to networking sessions, where guest speakers have included U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek and Ghislain Gouraige, senior vice president of investments at UBS Financial Services. The sessions are open to Miami-area students, including those who attend law schools out of state and might not even be interested in working at Bilzin Sumberg.

“It’s really designed to encourage these students to look at south Florida very seriously as their career choice when they graduate,” says Pasternack, the firm’s hiring partner and chairman of its culture and diversity committees. “Obviously, we’d love to have the
best and the brightest —?that’s how you build an excellent law firm — but we also recognize that we can’t get every quality student who’s there.

We recognize that the diversity issue is not limited to our firm, and so to the extent we can help the local law community improve its diversity, that’s something we’re interested in doing.”


“It’s really designed to encourage these students to look at south Florida very seriously as their career choice when they graduate.”

— Marshall R. Pasternack Bilzin Sumberg Baena Price & Axelrod

Most recently, the firm has taken an even longer term look at diversity by becoming one of five firms nationally and the only one in Florida in 2009 to participate in the National Legal Diversity Pipeline, a program created in 2007 by the National Association for Law Placement and Street Law, two non-profit groups that promote law firm diversity. The program links the firm to Miami-Dade’s Coral Gables Senior High School, where 80% of its 3,300 students are Hispanic, 10% are African-American, 8% are white and 2% are Asian-American.

Last fall, the firm hosted 50 of the students for a day of law classes, mock trials, pizza and the promise of future mentoring. The experience left Michael Zammer, a 16-year-old junior, a little more open to the idea of a career in law, although he admits that spending three or more years in law school sounds daunting. Julio Garcia, who teaches law classes at Coral Gables, says the experience was an “eye opener” for many of
the students who got the chance to speak directly to attorneys, paralegals and other staff and ask them specific questions about their jobs. “It was good for them to get that realistic point of view,” Garcia says. “I can tell them, but they don’t always believe me.”

Pasternack’s hope is that the program will eventually increase diversity at his and other Florida firms, although he says it will take years to tell. “You never know what conversation, what comment you might make to a young person, that might create a spark,” he says. “All it takes is one of those sparks to come out of a day like that to set someone on a career path — and you’ve had a successful day. I’m hopeful that some of those students in that room will do something different with their lives or aspire to do something greater than they might have done before they came and saw us.”

Priorities

Last year, the Florida Bar asked a random sample of its 87,000 members to list the legal issues they want the Bar to focus on during the next few years. Participants were allowed to list up to three issues. Diversity finished last.

Category Percent
Improve public perception 52%
Increase professionalism efforts 37
Be more responsive to the small firm/sole practitioner 35
Tougher standards on lawyer advertising 30
Legal access for those who cannot afford an attorney 26
Be more aggressive with unauthorized practice of law enforcement 20
Stronger discipline for theft of client funds 17
Explore ways to increase diversity within the legal profession 8
Other 15*
* The most frequently mentioned issues under the “other” category included “ensuring the quality of the judiciary,” “avoiding political issues” and “increasing the use of technology.”
Source: Florida Bar’s 2009 Membership Opinion Survey
?
In a 2008 survey, another random sample was asked to indicate which of the following programs or plans their firm or legal office had in place. Again, diversity finished last:
Category Percent
Hurricane/disaster preparedness plan 49%
Pro bono service policy 22
Technology committee 17
Strategic planning committee 16
Diversity sensitivity training program for associates and staff 8
Active program to recruit and retain minority associates 4
Source: Florida Bar’s 2008 Economics and Law Office Management Survey

Tags: Politics & Law, Southeast, Education, Government/Politics & Law

Digital Access

DIRECT DIGITAL ACCESS
Add digital to your current subscription, purchase a single ditgital issue, or start a new subscription to Florida Trend.

TABLE OF CONTENTS
An overview of the features and articles in this month's issue of Florida Trend.

ACCESS THIS ISSUE »

Florida Business News

Florida Trend Video Pick

Florida Orchestra's Michael Francis
Florida Orchestra's Michael Francis

Florida Orchestra's Michael Francis talks making music and a home.

Earlier Videos | Viewpoints@FloridaTrend

Ballot Box

How much do you get into Halloween?

  • I'm into it - parties, decorating, theme parks, whatever I can fit in
  • I just participate for the kids
  • Boo - I keep the lights off to avoid trick-or-treaters

See Results

Ballot Box
Subscribe