Diversity a Legitimate Justice Department Goal

Larry D. Thompson
Larry D. Thompson Former Deputy Attorney General - U.S. Department of Justice, Lawyer, Trustee - The Brookings Institution

January 15, 2004

As we approach our national holiday celebrating the life and work of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., it is fitting to reflect on the media attention and uninformed criticism of the U.S. Justice Department’s recent release of a consultant’s diversity study of the department’s attorney work force.

As deputy attorney general, I requested the study to get an expert’s assessment of the department’s work force. The consultant produced a comprehensive 186-page report that noted some positive aspects of the department’s diversity and some things that needed improvement, such as the retention rate of minority attorneys. That is exactly what I wanted to know and is why I requested the study.

Like many other government studies released to the public, this one omitted certain information such as the consultant’s recommendations. These redactions were made by career attorneys in the department who thought that a release of the full report might have a detrimental effect on the department’s internal deliberations.

The released study was followed by a chorus of criticism that focused mostly on the redactions, and the resulting media coverage conspicuously and regretfully ignored one very important fact: In February 2003, the department began to implement a number of initiatives designed to make certain that its attorney work force was as diverse as possible.

The lack of coverage of this significant development is disheartening but not surprising. Some people simply cannot bring themselves to credit the department and the Bush administration for undertaking legitimate and worthwhile diversity efforts. One critic characterized the department’s initiatives as the “foundationless pursuit of racial diversity.”

The hangup here is that many Americans continue to be obsessed with race and ethnicity. They reflexively attribute all diversity initiatives to racial and ethnic considerations.

These are both important and should not be ignored, but true diversity takes into account other factors as well. Socioeconomic and geographic considerations, for example, contribute importantly to a strong and diverse work force.

The department’s initiatives include efforts aimed at recruiting and retaining minority attorneys, as well as recruiting attorney candidates from geographically diverse backgrounds. Other steps have been taken to improve attorney recruiting overall. One involves a loan forgiveness program for students who commit to public service careers. None of these initiatives involves hiring or promotion preferences, which are unnecessary and would be demeaning to the many highly qualified minority attorneys already making a mark in the department.

The initiatives represent a practical, common-sense recognition that the department will be stronger and more effective if its attorney work force represents a full spectrum of backgrounds, including those defined by race and ethnicity.

Diversity makes eminent sense for an agency that depends on the trust and confidence of all Americans and whose attorneys deal every day with all kinds of people—judges, jurors, witnesses, crime victims, defendants, law enforcement officials and members of the public. The department’s initiatives are similar to approaches used by many private-sector organizations, including law firms.

The initiatives also make sense because I knew from my own experience before joining the department that this great institution should do better on some diversity fronts. While in private practice, I appeared in cases before each of the department’s six litigating divisions and before U.S. attorney’s offices all across the country. Many of these cases were important and complex, but I seldom saw a minority attorney representing the government’s interests.

The diversity study provided a valuable framework for moving forward. All survey responses and statistical information connected with the study were released to the public.

It is truly unfortunate that a routine decision made by career attorneys has obscured the department’s leadership in undertaking these significant diversity initiatives.

The department has many dedicated and highly qualified attorneys. In pursuing diversity, it should not stray from this high standard.