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Minneapolis, Minn. — Tamika Nordstrom became a partner at the Minneapolis law firm of Briggs and Morgan last summer -- and it was a big deal. Not everyone who starts at a law firm finishes the seven-year path to partnership.
"I'm very proud. I'm very happy to have made it there. I know not many people get there and it's an accomplishment that I wanted to make and worked really hard, so I'm very happy," she said.
But Nordstrom's accomplishment is even bigger than it may seem on the surface. Of the firm's 90 partners, she's one of only a half-dozen minorities in those ranks. And she's the first black female partner ever at the more than century-old Briggs. Nordstrom said she was surprised to learn that she was a trail-blazer.
"For me being from the South originally and seeing people of color achieving in all walks of life as I grew up, it never dawned on me than in 2004, I might be the first black anything or the first black female anything," she said.
There's no question, as much as it's not cool to say it, it's an economic issue.
According to the National Association for Law Placement in Washington, DC, just 2.25 percent of the partners in Twin Cities law firms are minorities. That includes African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans.
Briggs, like many of the large firms in the Twin Cities, is trying to increase those numbers. The firm has established a committee to help diversify the entire firm, not just the legal staff. And in order to recruit more minority attorneys, Briggs hosts receptions for students of color at local law schools and recruits at minority conferences.
The firm's president, Richard Mark, says having diversity at his firm isn't just a good idea, but a business necessity since many corporate clients are now pressuring firms to assign minority attorneys to work on their cases.
"There's no question, as much as it's not cool to say it, it's an economic issue. In the real world what's going to get it done is business. And now that businesses and corporations are demanding that their own law departments and their own law firms be diverse, it will get done and you know what, I agree with them," he said.
But there are obstacles. A big one is Minnesota itself, says Harvey Rupert, president of the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers. Rupert occasionally recruits for his firm, Faegre and Benson, where he's an associate. He recalled a recruiting trip to a black law students job fair at Harvard University.
"We had this beautiful presentation. We had spent all this money on this board that talked about Minnesota and all of its attributes. We clearly had the best presentation of any law firm there. And time and time again, minority students walked by our booth, said wonderful things about our presentation and then shook their heads and said, 'There is no way in the world I would ever come to Minnesota'," he said.
Rupert says more diverse cities like New York, Washington, D.C. and Atlanta are often more attractive to minority law grads. Since they're highly-sought-after, those grads have a choice. But even when they do accept an offer in the Twin Cities, that doesn't mean they'll become partners.
Cornell Moore is an African-American and a long-time partner at Dorsey and Whitney, the area's largest law firm. He says the entire process is a challenge.
"First of all you have to get them here. Then you have to get them to stay. Then you have to have an environment where they feel welcome, friendly and warm and open to stay. And it's not that open, friendly and warm to stay for non-lawyers of color," he said.
With a 12 percent minority population, many minorities complain that Minnesota is just too white. To address that concern, Minnesota's minority bar associations and area law schools set up a Web site earlier this year that they hope will dispel some of the myths about the state. MNlegaldiversity.org offers information on the local cultural and entertainment scenes.
But the community is only one problem. Even when minorities take jobs in Twin Cities law firms, they don't always stay at those firms long enough to become partner. Often they don't have good mentors to help keep them on the partnership path. Some open their own practices after a few years, others work for non-profit organizations or go into academia. Still others follow the lure of in-house counsel, all options which can offer a lifestyle different from the long grueling hours of private practice.
In fact, the minority in-house attorneys sometimes find themselves in positions of power to pressure firms to hire more minorities. And when the firms feel the pressure, they look back down the pipeline to the law schools. They want them to produce more minority graduates. Alex Johnson, the dean of the University of Minnesota law school says about 19 percent of the school's nearly 900 students are minorities.
"We do produce, not a great number of minority lawyers, but we do produce a fair number. We'd like to produce more, but there's no guarantee those lawyers are going to stay here. They're highly sought after. We're a top 20 law school and we have recruiters come in from all around -- I used to say the country, but now it's the world. And so when you do have a very attractive and very highly sought-after recent graduate, that person may receive 10, 20 offers from some of the most selective firms in the world," he said.
So the recruitment effort at law schools continues, as does the recruitment effort at law firms. The firms are trying to achieve "critical mass," which would attract more minorities to the Twin Cities.
Several area firms are now pooling their resources to try to increase diversity. They're following the lead of Boston and Connecticut, which formed collaborations to increase the number of minorities in their ranks. The Boston Lawyers Group has been working on the diversity issue for nearly two decades. Carolyn Golden Hebsgaard,the group's executive director who's now consulting with Twin Cities firms, says like Boston, the Twin Cities have many issues that are of concern to minorities, but she says that can't weigh down the effort.
"You're just going to have to hunker down and say 'OK, what is it that we're going to make happen here, how are we going to engage every aspect of this community in helping us send this message that we want people here, we want to invest their success and we are committee to making a very sizeable investment,'" she said.
Hebsgaard is convinced the Twin Cities can achieve critical mass, but she says the change won't happen overnight. She says she's pleased that there's a collaborative effort here to address diversity.
Some members of the Twin Cities legal community take heart in the fact that with 2.25 percent minority partners here, the Twin Cities are not that far out of line with other areas with larger minority populations. For instance about 5 percent of the partners in Atlanta are minorities and less than 4 percent are minorities in Detroit. The Twin Cities have some catching up to do, but they're not alone -- and they're making the effort.
Editor's note: This story was updated on December 28 to reflect a correction in the number of students attending the University of Minnesota Law School. According to the school's Web site, 871 students are presently enrolled.