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US law firm alters diversity fellowship criteria after lawsuit

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Supreme Court hears challenge to race-conscious college admissions

By Nate Raymond

(Reuters) - A major U.S. law firm has changed the criteria for a fellowship aimed at promoting diversity in the legal profession after the conservative activist behind the successful U.S. Supreme Court challenge to the consideration of race in college admissions accused it of discriminating against white applicants.

San Francisco-founded Morrison & Foerster has removed language specifying that the fellowship is only open to Black, Hispanic, Native American or LGBT applicants, according to a flyer for the program on its website.

Data for the PDF flyer shows it was created on Aug. 30, a week after a group founded by affirmative action foe Edward Blum filed lawsuits against it and another large law firm alleging their diversity fellowships unlawfully excluded certain people based on their race.

The paid fellowships were designed in part to help support the recruitment of people of color, which major law firms have struggled for years to add to their partnership ranks.

Blum in a statement said his group is awaiting a formal reply from Morrison & Foerster to its motion for a preliminary injunction in district court.

Morrison & Foerster did not respond to a request for comment.

In this case, Blum's American Alliance for Equal Rights took aim at the firm's Keith Wetmore 1L Fellowship for Excellence, Diversity, and Inclusion, which since 2012 provided support to law students from "historically underrepresented groups in the legal industry."

The fellowship consists of a paid summer-associate position, which in law firms often lead to full-time jobs that pay in the six figures after graduation, and a $50,000 stipend. The firm has more than 1,000 lawyers globally.

Before Blum's group sued on Aug. 22 in federal court in Miami, Morrison & Foerster's website said the fellowship was intended for law students "who are members of historically underrepresented groups in the legal industry."

But that language is gone now, and the flyer now instead says applicants just need to be able to "bring a diverse perspective to the firm as a result of your adaptability, cultural fluency, resilience, and life experiences."

Legal challenges against corporate diversity programs have increased in the wake of the Supreme Court's affirmative action ruling. That decision stemmed from lawsuits that a different group Blum founded filed against Harvard and the University of North Carolina.

The other law firm in Blum's crosshairs is Seattle-founded Perkins Coie, a more than 1,200-lawyer global law firm. It has a similar fellowship and has said it plans to defend itself, saying its commitment to diversity is "steadfast."

He is also suing a venture capital firm called Fearless Fund that supports Black women business owners.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston, Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Richard Chang)