ASU, Phoenix law firm team up to improve diversity in the legal profession
For as long as there has been a legal profession, diversity has been lacking. Despite statistical improvements in recent years, it remains one of the least diverse fields in the United States. The American Bar Association reports that in 2019, 85% of active attorneys in the U.S. identify as Caucasian, and 64% are male. And the problem is even more pronounced at the highest levels, with greater disparities among equity partners at law firms and general counsels of Fortune 500 companies.
Phoenix law firm Fennemore Craig is partnering with the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University to effect meaningful change, seeking to broaden the industry’s demographics by growing the pipeline of diverse candidates from ASU Law. Fennemore Craig is offering financial support in the form of a Diversity Scholarship and Fellowship, and supporting pipeline and legal preparation programs, hoping to increase diversity both at its own firm and within the greater legal sector.
“Improving diversity in the legal profession is first and foremost the right thing to do,” said James Goodnow, Fennemore Craig’s president and managing partner. “It is also critical to the legal profession if it is to continue to represent and provide legal advice and guidance to businesses, individuals, government agencies and organizations that are themselves diverse and have customers and decision-makers who are diverse. All law firms must be able to appreciate the nature of their clients and their goals and values, which can only be accomplished when those firms understand and appreciate the views of their clients as well as any other parties involved, which are continuing to increase in diversity.”
ASU Law Dean Douglas Sylvester said this first-of-its-kind partnership with Fennemore Craig is just the latest step in the school’s ongoing efforts to find innovative solutions to the legal profession’s diversity problem. The Law School Admission Council’s Diversity Committee recognized ASU Law’s efforts earlier this year, honoring the school with its 2019 Diversity Matters Award.
“A critical element of increasing diversity in the legal profession is increasing access to law schools, and it’s exciting to work with a law firm like Fennemore Craig to help create opportunities for a broader base of students,” said ASU Law Dean Douglas Sylvester. “ASU Law has been at the forefront of this issue with our innovative Pipeline Initiative program, working at the high school level to develop critical-thinking and writing skills, enhancing students’ chances of getting into law school, and ensuring they are prepared for success once they arrive.”
And the partnership with Fennemore Craig is designed to strengthen and extend that pipeline, Sylvester said, helping students not only gain access to law school, but then helping those students make the move from law school to a top law firm.
The initial Diversity Scholarship and Fellowship recipient is Nyla Knox, a first-year student at ASU Law, who will participate in a fellowship with Fennemore Craig this summer. She was elated to learn she is the initial recipient and said the benefits go far beyond the financial aspect.
“It was a sigh of relief to get the financial help, but also to know that going into law school I would have mentors at Fennemore Craig who I could reach out to for advice and to help me with the process,” she said, noting that the firm has been in frequent communication with her since April, checking in, offering guidance and ensuring she has everything she needs to succeed.
Knox, who majored in justice studies as an undergrad at ASU, has known since high school that she wanted to become an attorney. But she was venturing into an unknown world, unsure of how to navigate the road ahead.
“I was going in blind when applying for law school as I don't know any lawyers and I don’t have any lawyers in my family. I was figuring everything out on my own as I went,” she said. “Receiving this scholarship and fellowship, establishing a relationship with Fennemore Craig and having experienced people who are willing to assist me has been a huge help.”
Like ASU Law, Fennemore Craig is involved in multiple diversity projects across various levels of education.
“The firm recognizes that in order to improve the diversity of the legal profession, it’s vital to improve the opportunities and generate interest with all students, including diverse students, to pursue a law school education,” Goodnow said. “Consequently, Fennemore Craig works with high schools, colleges and law schools to ensure that diverse students appreciate the legal profession as a career and help ensure increased opportunities for those students who choose to pursue a law school education.”
It is truly a top priority. Visitors to Fennemore Craig’s website will find that their commitment to diversity is the first thing that comes up on the "About Us" section.
“That is by design,” Goodnow said. “Most, if not all, businesses hold firm to the proposition that their most valuable asset is their people. Fennemore Craig also holds strongly to that belief and we want everyone who is thinking about working with us to understand our values. By putting our emphasis on diversity up front, our goal is to ensure that everyone knows that we take our people and the diversity of our people seriously. It is who we are.”
And that, he says, is better for both the firm and its clients.
“Fennemore Craig has and always will put the client first,” he said. “We are able to do that because we value the diversity of thought that is crucial to a full-service law firm which provides representation that reflects the dynamic and diverse nature of our region and the myriad of challenges facing our business clients. When we have diversity around the table, we are able to find innovative solutions because of the experiences and different perspectives of our team. That equals better results for clients. The creation of the Scholarship and Fellowship thus allows us to do the right thing socially and deliver better results for our clients.”
A Phoenix native, Knox says she wants to give back to the community she grew up in and plans to practice in the Valley. She is undecided about a specific legal career, but thinks spending the summer with Fennemore Craig will help narrow her focus.
“I really appreciate what ASU Law and Fennemore Craig are doing in reaching out to people like myself who may not come from a background where you have everything that you need to succeed in law school,” she said. “As someone who has worked hard to get where I am, I really appreciate not only being able to take some of the financial burden off, but also knowing that I have people in my corner.”