Take closer look at racial diversity in Hawaii's law firms


POSTED: Tuesday, October 28, 2008





        Hawaii's chief justice has told young lawyers that ethnic diversity should be addressed in hiring by the state's law firms.



Hawaii is widely known for its racial diversity, but that does not necessarily translate into ethnic harmony in either society or the workplace. Chief Justice Ronald T.Y. Moon told young lawyers last week that law firms once were off limits to lawyers of color, but “;the situation has significantly improved.”; A survey is needed to determine whether that is true, in which case Hawaii would be an exception to national trends in the legal community.

In his annual speech to the Hawaii State Bar Association's Young Lawyers Division, Moon recalled that when he searched for a job after obtaining his law degree in 1965, “;Asian-American lawyers were still not being hired by the Caucasian law firms”; during the waning years of Hawaii's economic control by the Big Five corporations. “;Within a few years, however,”; he added, “;a sprinkling of Asians had been hired by these law firms.”;

The improvement since then that Moon described, if true, is not so elsewhere in the country. Moon cited a survey showing that only 4 percent of the heads of law firms in the United States are lawyers of color. The American Bar Association reported in 2005 that minority representation among those law firm partners had grown by only 0.7 percent since 1999. Of every four minority women hired by law firms, three left within the first five years.

Moon gave no statistics on how minority lawyers have fared in Hawaii, basing his conclusions on his own observations. The state bar association could shed light on the issue by taking a survey similar to those that have been made nationally.

Racial friction continues outside of the courtroom. The chief justice pointed out City Councilman Rod Tam's remark that “;we don't want wetbacks”; working on city rail projects and Rex Johnson's use of his state computer to e-mail racist jokes, leading to Johnson's forced resignation as head of the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

Moon also made mention of racial improprieties entering the legal system in remarks by jurors in deliberation or by attorneys in their unfounded references to race as a factor in cases. The state Supreme Court rightly has overturned verdicts compromised by such improprieties.

Smart lawyers understand the importance of hiring minorities not just as fair hiring practices, but as good strategy. Moon cited an ABA Journal article recognizing corporate legal chiefs' observations that “;having a variety of perspectives on a legal team can open the door to innovative thinking, strategy and solutions, and differentiated thought that they might not get from a group of white, male lawyers who share the same upbringing and socioeconomic background.”;