The Lawyer Who Sued Harvard on Affirmative Action Is Going After Law Firms

(Bloomberg Law) — Edward Blum’s newest anti-affirmative action group sued Perkins Coie and Morrison Foerster Tuesday, alleging that diversity fellowships at the firms are unlawful in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision overturning affirmative action.

“This kind of rank discrimination was never lawful, even before SFFA v. Harvard held that colleges cannot use race in admissions,” the suit alleges.

“As a firm, we have been a leader in efforts to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in the legal profession,” Perkins Coie spokesperson Justin Cole said in a statement. “Our commitment to those values remains steadfast. We will defend this lawsuit vigorously.”

Morrison Foerster did not respond to requests for comment.

Blum founded Students for Fair Admissions, which won in the Supreme Court against Harvard and the University of North Carolina, in which the justices overturned affirmative action in admissions. Blum’s newest vehicle, The American Alliance for Equal Rights, filed the lawsuits against the international firms over fellowships aimed at hiring diverse candidates. The suit asks the respective courts to permanently bar the firms’ current diversity fellowships.

“Excluding students from these esteemed fellowships because they are the wrong race is unfair, polarizing and illegal,” Blum said in a statement. “Law firms that have racially-exclusive programs should immediately make them available to all applicants, regardless of their race.”

Since the high court ruling, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion hiring initiatives have faced heightened scrutiny from Republican lawmakers and attorneys general. Last month, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) sent law firms a letter warning them that their use of DEI initiatives may be illegal.

Scott Anderson, managing partner of mid-sized New England-founded firm Verrill, is not surprised by the litigation. He says firms with DEI initiatives are trying to “remove barriers that exist that may have blinded us to how we have made decisions in recruiting and retention efforts,” and these programs are still legal, even in light of the court’s decision.

“I think there is a difference, at least from my perspective, in how law firms operate these programs and goals and as opposed to maybe some higher education institutions,” Anderson said.

Perkins Coie posted on its website “we re-affirm our commitment to building a more diverse and inclusive workplace and legal profession” following the Supreme Court’s decision. The Seattle-founded firm has diversity fellowships for first-year and second-year students from underrepresented backgrounds, according to the firm’s site.

The 1L fellowship, which first began in the 1990s, offers students a $15,000 academic scholarship on top of a paid summer role. The 2L fellowship, launched in 2020, gives students $25,000.

Morrison Foerster began sponsoring legal diversity scholarship programs in the 1980s and created its own fellowship program for 1Ls in 2012. The firm’s fellowship program gives $25,000 to students over two years.

These types of programs and figures are common at many Big Law and mid-sized firms. Paul Hastings offers a diversity scholarship that includes $50,000 and a paid summer associate position and Linklater’s 2L program gives $25,000 with a paid summer position. The American Bar Association also has a $5,000 diversity scholarship.

The association’s new president Mary Smith says ensuring diversity within the legal profession is a priority for the group.

“We are undertaking a review looking at the [Supreme Court] decision and trying to figure out alternatives and ways to comply with the law but to ensure that we are promoting diversity, inclusion and equity in the legal profession,” Smith said.

Blum’s two-year-old alliance filed Tuesday’s lawsuit against Perkins Coie in federal district court in Dallas and the one against Morrison Foerster in Miami federal district court. Perkins Coie has an office in Dallas, which opened in 2010. Morrison opened its Miami office in 2019.

The American Alliance for Equal Rights is continuing Blum’s anti-affirmative action litigation campaign. Earlier this month, the group filed a lawsuit against a Black woman-led venture capital fund, Fearless Fund, for financing startups run by Black women.

The cases are American Alliance for Equal Rights v. Morrison & Foerster, S.D. Fla., No. 1:23-cv-23189, 8/22/23; and American Alliance for Equal Rights v. Perkins Coie, N.D. Tex., No. 3:23-cv-01877, 8/22/23.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tatyana Monnay at [email protected]

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at [email protected]; John Hughes at [email protected]; Alessandra Rafferty at [email protected]

(Updated with statement from Perkins Coie in the third paragraph.)

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.

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