Congratulations to the 2023 UberMegaEsquires out there! Quite the honor, to be sure. To earn this award you had to rise to the top of your practice… and have your check clear. Not necessarily in that order.
Attorney awards can get a little sticky. For every organization with a solid reputation for keeping its assessment untainted by its business interests, there are others that bestow titles that raise eyebrows. State bars recognize this too, and many have promulgated rules over the past several years casting ethical judgment on attorneys advertising their services off the strength of questionable honorifics.
But these regulations introduce a whole new set of problems when they chill the celebration of deserved recognition, a development with uniquely negative repercussions for attorneys of color. Because in an industry that relies heavily on networking and connections, when attorneys without those privileges can’t tout their earned awards, it strips them of a critical avenue for distinguishing themselves to potential clients.
Lawyers of Color president Yolanda Young explained:
Evaluating legal skills is a highly subjective endeavor, one that has been shown to be biased against Black, Asian American, and other lawyers of color. It is a bias that has caused an exodus of minorities from the profession. Even as law school classes are increasingly diverse, with people of color making up about 35% of the 2021 entering law school class, they comprise only 14.1% of all lawyers. Much lower percentages ever receive honors and accolades. Indeed, Lawyers of Color began bestowing such recognitions only after years of reporting on the underrepresentation of minorities receiving them. Their omissions weren’t due to a lack of credentials or accomplishments, but from the legal profession’s well-documented biases.
Lawyers of Color bestows a number of honors, but the most relevant ones for this discussion are its nomination lists, which include Nation’s Best, Top Black Congressional Staffers & Lobbyists, and the Hot List. All of these lists comply with the various state ethical opinions regulating attorney advertising based on lists and accolades. Young noted that the methodology behind each honor is transparent and exceeds state bar requirements, with “independent vetting review before concluding with a rigorous inquiry into attorney fitness.” Not only does the organization keep the duty of evaluating nominees separate from the fundraising side, Young informed me that, “95 percent of our honorees and their organizations have never purchased an ad or provided any other form of support.”
But a recognition is only as valuable as it is… recognized. When regulators pump out rules that leave lawyers unsure about publicizing their inclusion, it blunts the value of the honor.
We continue to do this work because we believe such recognitions will maintain and increase diversity within the legal profession, which is imperative. The organizations that support us share this conviction. While state bars should require the utmost ethical standards for honors, they should take care to ensure there is no unintended and disproportionate impact on lawyers of color.
Lawyers embrace the maxim that it’s best to avoid the mere appearance of impropriety. Well, except for the Supreme Court. But generally attorneys err on the side of caution and state bars prefer to let lawyers embrace this tendency. It’s easier to keep everyone wary.
Yet, this impulse fails the profession when ethical standards impose a disparate impact on minority attorneys. When lawyers of color are left doubting if they should mention legitimate honors, it’s no longer about erring on the side of caution, it’s disadvantaging another legal professional.
It’s all well and good to stay silent on some of these rules, but this is one instance where state bars need to be proactive to make sure everyone knows exactly what is and is not allowed.
Joe Patrice is a senior editor at Above the Law and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. Feel free to email any tips, questions, or comments. Follow him on Twitter if you’re interested in law, politics, and a healthy dose of college sports news. Joe also serves as a Managing Director at RPN Executive Search.