Last update: September 07, 2006 – 10:22 AM

2 standards for diversity in the legal fraternity

Katherine Kersten, Star Tribune

The Minneapolis law firm of Maslon, Edelman, Borman and Brand knows a lot about the struggle against discrimination. The firm was founded 50 years ago by Jewish attorneys who couldn't get jobs elsewhere.

The Maslon firm has plenty of civil rights laurels. In the 1970s it led the lawsuit that produced a desegregation order involving the Minneapolis public schools. In 2005 it won a gender equity award from the Minnesota State Bar Association. And it is one of the state's few large law firms headed by a woman.

So in 1997 it seemed natural for Maslon attorneys to represent students who believed they were being excluded from the University of Michigan and its law school because of their race. The cases turned on classic constitutional principles of equality before the law. Both went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Lawyers who take on cases such as this usually gain the admiration of their peers. But today, Maslon -- whose attorneys donated their time to crusade for equal rights -- is being shunned in important centers of power.

The rub? The students Maslon represented on grounds of race-based exclusion were white.

The backlash came in early 2006, when Maslon applied to join Twin Cities Diversity in Practice, a consortium of nine major corporations and 19 law firms interested in recruiting and hiring minority attorneys. Maslon's admission should have been a slam dunk. But its application was tabled after objections were raised. Months later, the firm is still in limbo.

Terri Krivosha, chairwoman of Maslon's governance committee, says she was stunned by the decision to defer the firm's application because it had represented particular clients.

Who's behind the effort to tar and feather Maslon? A principal player is the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers (MABL). Jerry Blackwell, then the association's president, objected to Maslon's application in a letter to the chairperson of the board of Diversity in Practice. "The Maslon admission carries an unacceptable 'taint' that is likely to undermine ... the goal of attracting future attorneys of color."

Got that, Maslon? Your presence in a group that promotes diversity is intolerable to those with supposedly enlightened views on race.

Some would say, however, that the Association of Black Lawyers practices its own version of discrimination.

This was on display at a July event the association cohosted with Diversity in Practice and five minority lawyers groups. The gathering was billed as a shrimp boil: "a celebration and summer social for attorneys of color in our legal community."This event is for minority attorneys, minority summer associates and minority law students," the invitation read. "No other guests, please. Thanks in advance for helping us focus this event on networking with our peers."

Translation: No whites allowed.

What a topsy-turvy world. The invitation clearly suggests that white lawyers -- even those associated with Diversity in Practice, its cohost and sponsor -- would be unwelcome because of their race.

What's more, the shrimp boil took place on public property, at the Minneapolis Community and Technical College. An intentionally racially segregated event at a tax-funded institution?

Blackwell and MABL officials declined to be interviewed for this column, other than to provide a copy of Blackwell's letter regarding Maslon's application. Phone calls to an official of Diversity in Practice connected with the shrimp boil were not returned.

Larry Purdy, a Maslon attorney who helped try the Michigan cases, shakes his head over the double standard at work here. "The idea that any group, particularly a group of lawyers, could be sponsoring an intentionally racially segregated event in 2006 is astonishing to me," he says.

Peter Swanson is a black Twin Cities attorney who was instrumental in bringing this sorry episode to light. He sees a larger problem with the two organizations' views on race.

"They seem to promote a stereotype that all members of certain racial groups think alike," he says. "Apparently, these organizations aren't interested in diversity. They are not interested in recruiting and retaining all minority lawyers -- just the ones with the proper attitudes."

Katherine Kersten • [email protected]