Tiffany Harper, JD ’08, in-house counsel in the Chicago office of Grant Thornton LLP, one of the country’s top-grossing accounting firms, says she had the professional “pedigree” to succeed at a top firm: an Ivy League undergraduate education, top-tier law school training at Washington University and mentors eager to help. But she found few other black women attorneys among her colleagues, despite widespread efforts by firms to recruit minority associates.
Through her career-long involvement with the Black Women Lawyers’ Association of Greater Chicago (BWLA), Harper saw that when African-American women got a shot at top firms, few stayed. Nationwide, black women make up less than 3 percent of associates and less than 1 percent of partners.
“I talked with a lot of people about it. ‘Why can’t we stay at firms? Why can’t we rise in the ranks?’” Harper says. “But I never got a good answer.
“Most law students of color are concentrated in third- and fourth-tier law schools,” says the Chicago native and Dartmouth College graduate. Students there often don’t have the same opportunity to compete for “big law” summer associate positions and other top internships.
However, she also saw that those schools frequently turn out great lawyers. “I know plenty of outstanding lawyers of all racial and ethnic backgrounds who came from third- and fourth-tier law schools. I thought I could develop and mentor black, female law students to be marketable to firms and to succeed in firms no matter where they go to school.”
So in 2014, Harper and Chasity Boyce launched the Pilot Pipeline Program, partnering with Loyola University Chicago and, in 2015, with Chicago’s John Marshall Law School. BWLA attorneys volunteered to conduct workshops to improve students’ test-taking and writing skills and offer chances for professional development.
The program is working out “phenomenally” according to Harper. “We had three young women in the program last year, all of whom earned competitive GPAs and class rank with the academic support, professional development and mentoring provided by the program,” she says. “Each student also completed top-notch internships at law firms and in the chambers of federal and state court judges after their 1L year. It’s our hope that these opportunities put these students in the best position to be the next generation of diverse law firm partners, general counsel and judges.”
The program also places students in summer internships with large law firms or federal court judges — opportunities they likely would not have otherwise, says Harper.
One of the Loyola students benefiting from that support, Carrera Thibodeaux, says Pipeline is more than just mentoring.
“Tiffany continues to support every aspect of my life: prepping for tests, networking, finding a job, boosting my confidence, giving me advice on my personal life. I would not be in the position I am now if it weren’t for the program and all the people who donated their time to make sure I’d be a successful lawyer.”
That early success has Harper and Boyce thinking big.
“We want the program to operate on a national level within the next five years,” Harper says. That would benefit not only the program students but also large law firms whose “diversity initiatives to this point just have not been successful.”
Harper has been notably successful in her work as a litigator and in corporate bankruptcy and restructuring work. She believes that her hybrid skill set of litigation and transactional work will serve her well throughout her career, which will include, she hopes, law firm or corporate management and diversity positions.
“I can’t tell you how many recruiters have told me, ‘I want to hire somebody like you.’”
Now, thanks to the Pilot Pipeline Program, they may have a chance to do just that.