It is difficult to discuss the obstacles to diversity in the legal profession (or any aspect of diversity for that matter) without considering the “pipeline.” For how will we ever be able to meaningfully change the composition of law firm corner offices and/or corporate C-suites without a robust pipeline of successful, diverse young lawyers, law students, undergraduates, high-school students and grade school students? Sadly, the problem of the pipeline is complex. Issues of class, educational access, race and public policy have direct bearing on our access to high-potential, diverse talent to lead our profession.
Recently, as part of a locally based, yearlong leadership academy, my classmates and I experienced a program ironically called “Criminal Justice” day. Before this day, I thought I had a good sense of the pipeline and its challenges. I was wrong. After a morning of heartbreaking statistics presented by speakers ranging from our local U.S. Attorney to the police chief, we visited the local jail. In the jail “tour,” I saw first-hand what is becoming of a part of our “pipeline.” It seems that, at least in my home state of Georgia, more than 90 percent of those incarcerated are black males. Most of these “criminals” are in their early 20s. Most also are 10th-grade dropouts who read at the third-grade level.
That day I learned that Georgia spends approximately $50,000 to build a single new prison bed. The cost of housing prisoners is some $18,000 per inmate per year—more than the cost of a year at most of our state’s public universities. I learned that nationwide, there are more college-age black males in prison than in college. For most of our prison population, their collective fates were sealed as 8-year-olds. Georgia spends more than $1 billion annually on building prisons and warehousing young, illiterate black men out of a total state budget of some $18 billion. Beginning this past year, funding for college assistance in Georgia is being cut. Meanwhile, the prison business is a growth industry. Some version of this story is likely playing out in the state where you live, too.
What this means is that those of us waiting at the end of the pipeline for black male candidates will be sorely disappointed. We’ve lost, and continue to lose, many of these young people as children. Many of our great pipeline initiatives that seek to reach high-school students may be too late. Our mammoth societal resource investments in the prison industry are yielding a negligible return (except perhaps growing better, more-experienced criminals). Some argue that investments in early education are a kind of societal luxury that we cannot afford during current, resource-constrained conditions. That view is belied by the facts.
What do we do? We can champion the creation of partnerships between corporate America and urban elementary schools. We can attack the problem at its roots by working to achieve better outcomes for grade schoolers. We can add rationality and our professional charisma to a fact-driven dialogue about the intersection of poverty, education, race, crime and the pipeline for professional talent, especially in our profession. We can no longer simply assume that as “non-criminal” lawyers, we have no role to play.
This fall, our nation honored the legacy and work of Martin Luther King Jr. with a monument on the National Mall, which I visited in October. During my visit, I reflected on our pipeline and was struck by one of Dr. King’s quotes etched there: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Dr. King’s exhortation to us rings as true today as it did during the turbulent 1960s.
John Lewis Jr. is senior managing compliance counsel for The Coca-Cola Co.