President's Message on Affinity Bar Town Meeting Report

Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021 By MBA President Denise I. Murphy
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MBA President Denise I. Murphy

The following is a statement by Massachusetts Bar Association President Denise I. Murphy in response to the Feb. 4 release of the Supreme Judicial Court Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being’s Report Summarizing Affinity Bar Town Hall Meetings:

The Supreme Judicial Court Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being recently hosted town hall meetings with seven affinity bar associations to better understand the systemic barriers to inclusion and personal wellness for underrepresented members of the legal community. The result of those meetings is an eye-opening report containing firsthand accounts of discrimination, racial and gender bias, microaggressions, and other forms of unequal treatment experienced by more than 115 participating attorneys. While this town hall report merely relayed the statements and perspectives articulated by these attorneys, there are overarching themes that are both disturbing and a call to action.

The most alarming revelation in the report is the negative sentiment shared by attorneys of color and those who identify as transgender or nonbinary regarding their experiences in the courtroom. Among the many telling statements made to the committee, these lawyers noted that their legal credentials are often questioned or heavily scrutinized by court personnel, their names or preferred pronouns are repeatedly butchered, and they frequently view their case outcomes as racially driven.

Just as concerning, however, is the report’s confirmation that attorneys of color continue to feel marginalized in their own profession, mostly due to the lack of diversity and representative leadership. Because of our collective failure to recruit lawyers from diverse backgrounds and position them for success, they often experience a chronic sense of isolation and may rethink their membership in the Massachusetts bar or the legal profession altogether.

Regrettably, but unsurprisingly, the larger structural issues raised in this report are equal in number to the overt examples of discrimination and microaggressions. According to the affinity bar members, these near-daily occurrences include demeaning and racially insensitive comments related to their ability to practice law, dress requirements and conduct policies that repress certain cultural identities, and empty statements of support for social justice. Words without concrete action have no meaning.

As colleagues and allies to these attorneys, we should heed their words as a stark reminder of the inequities that plague our profession and a call for concrete, positive action by the bench and bar. While we recognize the importance of initial steps taken to diversify the Massachusetts judiciary and combat implicit bias in the court system, it is abundantly clear that we need to work toward more sweeping change.

The Massachusetts Bar Association is committed to playing an active role in this effort and thereby fulfilling our responsibility as the bar association representing all attorneys across the commonwealth. We understand that we must do more to welcome underrepresented lawyers into our membership and encourage them to participate in leadership positions so that we better embody the diversity of our full constituency.

The MBA promised more than words. It promised action and has made systemic changes to its policies and practices to effectuate change. To that end, we’ve eliminated long-standing requirements that only members were allowed to present at speaking opportunities, allowing non-members of diverse backgrounds to participate and have their voices represented at those events. Further, the MBA established a mandate that all conference and panel opportunities be diverse and reflective of our commonwealth-wide presence.

Working in partnership with the MBA Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee, we hope to continue our collaboration with the affinity bar associations to address the myriad concerns of their members.

As the MBA strives to advance needed reform within the legal profession, I encourage you, our members, to read the SJC report and consider any simple actions you can take to foster a more welcoming and inclusive environment for your fellow attorneys.