For These Lawyers, Diversity Has Its Limits

Shannon Prather, Pioneer Press (St. Paul), Nov. 23, 2006

It started out as a who’s who of Twin Cities law firms joining forces to lure minority attorneys to Minnesota.

But the Twin Cities Diversity in Practice group set off a tempest when it excluded a firm that handled a pair of landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases challenging affirmative action.

The group’s leaders said letting the Minneapolis law firm of Maslon, Edelman, Borman & Brand join the effort would hamper its mission: to make the bar more racially diverse.

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Maslon’s managing attorney said she and others in her firm were mystified by the group’s decision to deny them membership.

“We agree with their mission, absolutely agree with their mission,” said Terri Krivosha, chairwoman of the Maslon firm’s governance committee.

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The controversy centers on Maslon attorney Kirk Kolbo, who represented three University of Michigan applicants—two for an undergraduate program and one for the law school—who sued as part of a class action because of the school’s raced-based admissions policies.

In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court preserved affirmative action in university admissions. The court upheld the law school admission process that included a “highly individualized, holistic review of each applicant’s file” in which race counts as a factor but is not used in a “mechanical way.”

But the court struck down the way Michigan handled its affirmative action program for admissions to its undergraduate college, which used a 150-point system to rank applicants and gave underrepresented minority students a 20-point boost.

Now, the diversity group’s decision has morphed into a bit of a cause celebre for some conservatives and has dominated the legal trade press in recent weeks. The flap forced Hennepin County District Judge Tony Leung to resign as chairman before the vote to reject Maslon.

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Jones said he recognized that rejecting the Maslon firm put the diversity group in an odd position.

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But Jones, an attorney with Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi, said the decision to reject the Maslon firm was a pragmatic one, not a rebuke on the agency’s commitment to diversity. Jones said minority law students often associate the Maslon firm with its role in the affirmative action suit.

The Maslon firm intends to pursue its owns diversity efforts.

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Krivosha said four Jewish lawyers who couldn’t get jobs at other firms 50 years ago started Maslon. The firm now is one of three major Twin Cities law firms with a female managing partner. About 29 percent of its lawyers are women and 5 percent are minorities.

For his part, Kolbo said he was upholding a basic premise of the legal system when he worked with the Michigan applicants.

“I have always thought one of the great privileges and obligations of a lawyer is to represent people with legal rights even if it’s controversial or not popular,” Kolbo said. “I am proud to work for a firm that agrees with that philosophy.”

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But Kolbo’s passionate advocacy for his Michigan clients, comparing the white students with black civil rights pioneers who helped integrate schools, raised the scorn of some. A Detroit Free Press editorial writer called Kolbo’s argument, “more than a racial insult. It’s a big lie.”

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