(CNSNews.com) - Some of the nation's elite law firms are violating civil rights law to pander to corporate clients, according to a report that focused on the role of affirmative action in the legal community Tuesday.
The report, completed by Curt Levey - executive director of the Committee for Justice, states that a number of Fortune 500 companies push their corporate law firms to hire more women and minorities.
This, the report indicated, is in direct violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination by employers of companies with more than 15 employees. The provision is controversial, because some businesses who say they did not want to discriminate in hiring feared if they didn't their customers would go elsewhere.
"When all employers are forbidden from catering to the discriminatory preferences of their customers, then customers have nowhere to turn and are forced to interact with employees of all races," Levey, who once enforced equal opportunity rules for the U.S. Department of Education, said at a forum in Washington sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute.
Already, 60 law firms signed a pact agreeing to report gender and race information to their corporate clients, the report said. Meanwhile, more than 500 corporations have signed statements pledging to "give significant weight" to law firms' racial and gender composition in selecting outside counsel.
These corporations should be praised, rather than called to task, for their focus on diversity, contended Shirley Wilcher, president of Wilcher Global, LLC Diversity Consulting and former assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Labor during the Clinton administration.
"I commend Wal-Mart and Shell and other corporations who get law firms to pay attention to equal opportunity," Wilcher said. "Why are we here? It's because law firms haven't adhered to the goals of equal opportunity. It's up to corporations to bring law firms into the 21st Century."
Surveys of lawyers show that women and minorities feel they are more likely to face demeaning treatment in law firms and receive marginal case assignments, while they are less likely to be included in social networking to receive proper mentoring, Wilcher said.
But the number of minority lawyers hired to large elite firms is greater than the ratio of minorities in law schools, said Richard Sander, a professor at the University of California-Los Angeles School of Law.
Further, he added, statistics show that minorities hired to some of the nation's top law firms had lower grade point averages than their white counterparts. Sander cited a study that said only 2 percent of white lawyers at big law firms feel gender or ethnicity played a role in their hiring, while 50 percent of black lawyers believe it played a role.
"Once they come to these firms, they can have bad experience and can be labeled as not being star material, get assigned grunt work and leave," Sander said. "Another possibility is they will never get a high quality assignment. That's also discrimination against minorities."
Michele Roberts, a partner in Akin Grump, an elite Washington law firm, affirmed that her law firm will not hire C students "black, white, red or green," she said.
Roberts cautioned the public not to lose site of the real problem at large law firms.
"The bottom line is, as uncomfortable as it is - and we've come a long way - but like it or not there remains both covert and overt discrimination in law firms today," said Roberts an adjunct professor at Harvard School of Law. "That has a great deal to do with why there aren't more black partners in law firms today."
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