The lawyers in the California Attorney General’s office are significantly less diverse than the state they represent in court.
California is one of the few states in the U.S. where minority groups make up more than half the population. But minorities account for only 31% of attorneys in the Department of Justice, according to numbers from the state Department of Human Resources. Latinos are the largest ethnic group in California, representing about 40% of the population. By comparison, only 7% of the department’s attorneys are Latino.
Legal experts warn this lack of diversity may result in the department ignoring the needs of some communities.
“The AG’s office is all about exercising discretion,” said L. Song Richardson, dean and chancellor’s professor of law at the University of California Irvine. “Which cases are we going to take? Who should get the death penalty? How should different victims to be treated? All of these are discretionary decisions.”
Attorney General Xavier Becerra, the first Latino Attorney General in state history, acknowledged the critics’ concerns in an interview with CapRadio and said improving diversity is a top priority.
“If we truly want to represent the state of California, well, we should be as diverse as the state of California,” Becerra said.
The lack of diversity in the legal profession has received increased attention in recent years, especially at private practice firms. But it’s also present in public institutions.
According to figures provided by Becerra’s office, the Department of Justice is more diverse than private law firms in California, where minorities account for about 26% of attorneys. But the department falls well short of reflecting the diversity of California’s population.
Becerra said this disparity is in part due to the long legacy of discrimination in the legal profession.
“If you’re not accustomed to looking for attorneys that don’t look, sound and think like you, your office is going to reflect that,” he said.
While Becerra acknowledged the need for increased diversity in his office, he also touted areas of success representing minority groups. California, for example, has aggressively defended undocumented immigrants and challenged Trump administration policies in federal court — despite Latinos representing a small portion of the department’s attorneys. The office also noted that approximately half its attorneys are women. By comparison, women make up about 41% of attorneys in California.
Adeyinka Glover, an attorney at the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, urged the department to foster stronger ties with minority student groups on law school campuses. She noted that groups like the Black Law Students Association has chapters at most law schools.
Hear more from legal experts about state attorney diversity:
Becerra said his office has been aggressive in its recruiting and also launched internal initiatives, including the creation of a leadership committee to improve diversity.
But beyond periodic committee hearings and annual reports, Becerra said he wants to see quantifiable changes reflected in the department’s ranks.
"We have to admit that there aren't as many people of color who are attorneys in California as you might think,” said Becerra. “That doesn't give you an excuse not to hire people who are from that background if you can."