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Yes, White Men Can Apply Too

Vivia Chen

June 18, 2018


This might be just a drop in the diversity bucket, but it's an interesting drop.

Boston-based Brown Rudnick just inaugurated a diversity fellowship that gives a first-year law student the opportunity to work at the firm's New York or Boston office as a summer associate (and be paid accordingly), as well as a tidy $22,500 for tuition.

Nice package, but ho-hum, you're saying. Another diversity scholarship/internship. So what's new and different about this one?

The news flash is this: You don't have to be a minority member to apply. The fellowship is open to all 1-Ls who are the first in their family to go to college. So, get on board white folks!

"Diversity scholarships are usually focused on race, and there's been a backlash because they exclude white people," says Ari Joseph, Brown Rudnick's director of equity, inclusion and diversity (query: are corporate titles getting ridiculously long?). Of the seven finalists for the fellowship, two were white, says Joseph. (This year's winner is W. Lydell Benson Jr., a 1-L at George Washington University Law School.)

For Joseph, creating and promoting this fellowship has been personal. A graduate of NYU School of Law, Joseph is a bi-racial, first generation college graduate who was raised by a single mother, along with three younger siblings.

That background was influential in the design of the fellowship. "I thought back to my childhood and my experiences in the corporate world—some were about being black but some were about cultural differences, like how to hold a cocktail glass or how to network," says Joseph. Those skills were foreign to him, he explains: "I grew up in a trailer park, and we had to go to a food bank for food."

Joseph adds that people who are on the low rungs socially and economically "have the hardest time climbing the ladder," citing a 2010 U.K. study. 

So have we reached a point where social/economic factors trump race in the career game? Hardly, says Joseph. "Race is unquestionably still one of the primary factors influencing a person's odds at having a more challenging, or more privileged, life. That said, many of the cultural or social challenges a poor black or Latino kid from the Bronx faces aren't that dissimilar from the challenges a poor kid from rural Texas might face." 

But could there be a blowback from minorities because this scholarship is open to whites too? "It could happen, I suppose," says Joseph. "I decided to err on the side of inclusivity. Pointing out our differences —even if we're trying to make a positive impact by doing so—can have unintended consequences."

He says that opening up the fellowship to all first generation college graduates isn't "diminishing the reality that minorities face very real challenges." The intent, he says, is to address how cultural differences —"whether they're caused by race/ethnicity or socioeconomic status"—create  barriers to mobility.

In the rarefied world of Big Law, blatant racial discrimination has become uncommon, says Joseph. Yet, he adds, privileged professionals "have expectations that people in their social and work circles will think and act in certain ways, and I've seen them write others off when they don't." Members of the lawyer class, he adds, "don't realize how much of a bubble they live and work in."

And will other firms adopt this broader definition of diversity? "I certainly hope some do," says Joseph, adding, "there's no reason we can't add another dimension to what we mean by 'diversity'."

Diversity that includes white men? In the age of Trump, Roseanne and Hillbilly Elegy, maybe this is the start of a necessary conversation.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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