Eric Holder, who served as attorney general for six years during the Obama Administration, says substantial progress has been made when it comes to diversity.

"I stand here today having served as the first African American attorney general in the history of the United States, in the administration of the first black president of the United States and having been succeeded by the first African American woman to serve as attorney general," said Holder. "Contained in that one sentence is progress the likes of which the generation before mine would have deemed almost unthinkable."

But Holder, a partner at Covington in Washington D.C., acknowledged there is still significant progress that needs to be made on the "journey to full inclusion." Holder pointed to recent statistics showing that roughly 80 percent of all lawyers in the U.S. are white, only a fifth of law firm equity partners are women, and lawyers of color make up about 10 percent of general counsels at large corporations and only two percent of partners at major law firms.

Further, Holder said that white men comprise 58 percent of state court judges in this country though they only make up about a third of the nation's population. Less than one-third of state judges are women and only about 20 percent are people of color.

"When our court systems do not reflect, in a general way, the communities they serve, that serves as one basis for the development of mistrust in the justice system," said Holder. "The legitimate concern we place on having diverse juries 'of our peers' should flow into a determination to make the bench diverse as well."

Holder delivered his remarks upon receiving the 2018 Honorable George Bundy Smith Pioneer Award, given by the Commercial and Federal Litigation Section of the New York State Bar Association. The award is named after the late former Court of Appeals associate judge who, in 2007, was the first recipient of the award.

The award presentation was part of a "Career Strategies for Attorneys of Color" event at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in Manhattan on April 10, which included a free continuing legal education event, entitled "Strengthening the Rule of Law by Fighting Discrimination."

'Unconscious Bias'
Holder cited a book by Stanford Law Professor Deborah Rhode called "The Trouble with Lawyers" in which the author discusses how the exact same legal memo was given to law firm partners for writing analysis. Half the partners were told it was prepared by an African American and half told it was written by a white man. Holder said the partners gave the white man's memo a 4.1 rating on a scale of 5, while the African American memo received a 3.2. 

The white man's memo drew praise for "potential and analytical skill." The African American memo was described as "average at best and in need of lots of work." 

Holder also mentioned a study conducted by the American Bar Association discussed in Rhode's book that found 62 percent of women of color and 60 percent of white women felt excluded from formal and informal networking opportunities compared to only four percent for white male lawyers.

"These are not easy things to discuss but we must," said Holder. "There is substantial evidence that unconscious bias and exclusion from informal network of support are still too common."

Holder said women also suffer from "an avalanche of misperceptions."

"What is seen as assertive in a man is seen as abrasive in a woman," said Holder. "…And women are many times perceived as too soft or too strident and so either incapable of leading or too arrogant to command respect," continued Holder. "These are consequential perceptions in all aspects of our legal system."

To complete the "journey to full inclusion," Holder said entities must be committed to equal opportunity, stress the importance of diversity, hold individuals and selection systems accountable for quantifiable results and create meaningful mentorship structures.

"Only then will we get to the place where we must be. Never forget that positive change, though possible, is not promised," said Holder. "It is the result of hard work, sacrifice and endurance in the face of failure. We must commit ourselves as a nation, and you must do so as stewards of our legal system, to making real the opportunities - not the results - that are the birthright of every American. We must strive for a diverse legal community."