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Natalie Holder-Winfield Headshot

ABC's The Deep End Has Law Firm Diversity Dead On

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Last Thursday, I huddled around a big bowl of microwave popcorn ready to dismiss ABC's new show about young, good-looking lawyers as dangerous fiction that falsely lures smart college kids who sucked at math to pursue law. However, there is a kernel of reality in this show that every black and Latino who ever dreamed about becoming a lawyer should heed.

In case you missed the pilot episode, the show focuses on four white associates from various law schools with lofty motivations for pursuing law. Throughout the episode, they are verbally beaten up by partners but, miraculously, by the show's final commercial break they grow spines and start to assert themselves.

While I can toss out most of the show's antics as hyperbole -- for starters, no partner would allow a first year associate to go within 20 feet of a client--the show is 100% correct when it comes to life at a firm for blacks and Latinos. For the most part, we do not exist.

Scenes like the one where Dylan, the first year associate who is described as a Boy Scout, is tapped for mentorship, help explain why associates of color only account for 15% of law firm associates. Rowdy Kaiser, a partner who drives a smoking Porsche, actually appoints himself as Dylan's "secret mentor." And, he lives up to his promise. Behind the scenes, he coaches Dylan and even helps him to navigate a difficult case where the firm would have lost a potential client if Dylan made one false move.

However, there are rarely secret mentors for associates of color. Many of the associates of color I interviewed for my book, Recruiting & Retaining a Diverse Workforce: New Rules for a New Generation were treated like outsiders. They were not invited to social functions with partners and they certainly were not tapped for secret mentoring. Yet, study after study shows the importance of mentoring in any profession.

Now, technically, the show has two black people: Susan Oppenheim (a named partner in the firm) and Malcolm Bennet (a first year associate).

Yet, when Susan is introduced to Malcolm, she literally closes the door in his face. She disregards him and is more concerned with the firm's politics, i.e., how he was hired, rather than eying him as her secret mentee.

The white associates in the show were given so much access and support. While they commiserated about the same old things that annoy all associates, they could at least dream about a future at the firm. They were a part of the firm. Poetically, the episode ends with Dylan being thrown into the deep end of a trendy rooftop pool. Surrounded by his colleagues, he floats to the surface, knowing that he is not alone.

Not surprisingly, Malcolm is not there. He wasn't even invited to the bar.