Naphtalie Librun-Ukiri grew up in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood, and knew from an early age that she wanted to be a lawyer. But at some point, she realized she had unwittingly put herself in a box.
“I was raised in an urban environment,” she said, “so I thought I could be a prosecutor, because that’s all I thought lawyers were.”
Now a first-year law student at the University of Minnesota, Librun-Ukiri is embarking on a new opportunity with a fellowship program through the law firm of Ballard Spahr aimed at giving women and people of diverse races and backgrounds hands-on experience while they are early in their studies.
Philadelphia-based Ballard Spahr, one of the nation’s largest law firms, does work in litigation, corporate law, real estate, intellectual property and finance.
It launched the Diversity Fellowship Program in 2015 and has offered it to first-year law students at its home office as well as in Denver, Los Angeles and Baltimore.
Librun-Ukiri is the first to be selected in Minneapolis, a multi-practice firm with more than 100 attorneys.
During the paid, nine-week program, which began last week, Librun-Ukiri also will spend three weeks working with Piper Jaffray’s in-house legal department.
The partnership aims to give the summer associates exposure to the differing rhythms and pressures in a corporate practice.
Numerous studies have shown that women, minorities and LGBT lawyers remain underrepresented across the nation’s law firms.
About 17% of attorneys at the nation’s 200 largest law firms identify as racial minorities, according to a 2019 survey from The American Lawyer. That’s up only slightly from eight years ago, when just under 14% were attorneys of color.
The slowest growth has come from black lawyers, who also have lower levels of representation than other groups, including Asian-Americans and Latinos.
Women accounted for about 23% of law partners in 2018, according to the National Association for Legal Placement.
Karla Vehrs, who leads Ballard Spahr’s Minneapolis office, said addressing the lack of diversity has become a business imperative.
“There’s a lot of value in making sure our population as a firm is representative of our community and the businesses we serve,” she said.
“Our clients, our partners in business community feel similarly,” she said. “Having a diverse workforce and a diverse group of attorneys in our firm is essential for the service they’re looking to get from us.”
The firm also makes connections with minority groups on college campuses, which is where Librun-Ukiri first learned of Ballard Spahr. It plays host to workshops on résumé writing and preparing for interviews.
To try to get younger students interested in legal careers, the Minneapolis office runs a “pipeline” internship program with Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Minneapolis’ Phillips neighborhood.
“They work on projects that are appropriate for high school students to handle, but they also get to experience what it’s like to be in this environment, being around lawyers and other professional staff,” Vehrs said. “And hopefully it does start to encourage them to think about their own future career paths.”
Vehrs said Ballard Spahr has made some inroads in its goal to become more diverse and inclusive.
About 54% of the attorneys who moved from associates to partners in 2018 were women or lawyers of color.
And Ballard Spahr ranks among the nation’s top firms of its size for its diversified minority equity partners.
Librun-Ukiri was raised by her grandparents, who emigrated from Haiti, and grew up surrounded by generations of family.
She spent three years working for Teach for America after she graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in political science.
She also worked as a Realtor in the Dallas area until moving to Minneapolis for law school.
She said sometimes companies just need to open their doors to people of differing backgrounds and expose them to the experience.
“Opportunities like this open up all the different roads that law students can take,” said Librun-Ukiri, who also will receive a $5,000 scholarship from Ballard Spahr. “Sometimes you just need to plant a seed.”