Bar leaders tackle 'imperative' of diversity in the profession

Issue June 2004

Attending the MBA's "Diversity in the Profession" conference are, from left, Women's Bar Executive Director Lissy Medvedow; Pamela Dashiell, counsel to the Attorney General-Boston and Antoinette Leoney, of the U.S. Attorney's Office.
What can the organized bar do to increase the racial and ethnic diversity of practicing attorneys and law students? And how extensive is the "pipeline" problem in the first place?

Bar leaders from across the state gathered in Boston on May 11, just nearly a week before the 50th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, for "Diversity in the Profession," a half-day conference to explore these questions and to consider courses of action that might lead to real change.

"We're here today because our profession is woefully underrepresentative of our population," MBA President Richard Van Nostrand said to attendees, who hailed from such groups as the Asian American Lawyers Association of Massachusetts, the Women's Bar of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Black Lawyers Association and the Massachusetts Association of Hispanic Attorneys.

Citing a major ABA study titled "Miles to Go," Van Nostrand said that minority representation in the legal profession is significantly lower than in most other professions. Since 1995, the number of new minority lawyers entering the profession has slowed considerably. National statistics show that law school applications from persons of color are declining, while overall law school applications are trending upward.

"In gathering here today," Van Nostrand said, "we recognize that, unfortunately, there is a history of racism in this country, and that progress has been made, and that we all should do what we can."

According to guest speaker ABA President-elect nominee and past MBA president Michael S. Greco, Brown "remains an unfulfilled promise."

"As leaders of the bar, we must do everything in our power to ensure that the legal profession reflects the growing minority population in America," Greco said. "Lawyers and the judiciary must work so all in this country will have the confidence and trust that the legal system represents all people."

Keynote speaker for the conference was James E. Coleman, Jr., senior associate dean and professor of law at Duke University School of Law. Coleman helped draft the ABA's amicus brief for the University of Michigan in the landmark affirmative action cases Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger. In his remarks, Coleman addressed three points key to deal with declining minority attendance in law schools and declining opportunities for minority attorneys.

First, he said, "affirmative action in legal education is critically important to the goal of a diverse legal profession."

Second, said Coleman, "a diverse legal profession is also essential for democratic government in a multiracial and multiethnic society."

Finally, he said, achieving true diversity in the profession "requires a real commitment to that goal by the leaders of the profession."

Kay Hodge, former MBA president and current chair of the ABA's Presidential Advisory Council on Diversity in the Profession, offered sobering statistics on the state of diversity in the Massachusetts legal profession. Compared to the 15 percent minority population in the state (according to the 2000 census), only 5 percent of lawyers and judges are members of a racial or ethnic group.

"That is appalling," said Hodge. "And we're losing ground!"

That loss is most evident in local law schools, where Hodge cited a decline in African-American students, especially among males. "Males of color simply are not applying," she said. Hodge also noted that 50 percent of students of color don't make it through law school to the bar exam, while at the same time many schools no longer provide support specifically for minority students.

Panelist Robert Ward, dean of Southern New England Law School, echoed both Hodge and Coleman, stating that "greater diversity in the legal profession is a moral imperative and an economic necessity."

Ward suggested to conference participants that they take a personal role in the "pipeline" issue. "You can put pressure on your alma matters. Create some discomfort and pressure to promote change," he said. "Ask what is it about this place that makes it inhospitable (to students of color)?"

Fellow panel member Jametta Alston, president-elect of the Rhode Island Bar Association, also supported the personal approach. "Diversity in the bar happens because we as a group decide we should all have access and should participate," she said.

Alston recounted her struggles as a young black attorney trying to break into the close-knit, and largely white-male Rhode Island legal community. It was a tale of persistence, frustration and ultimately success.

"If you know someone of color who is interested, tell them how to make the connections, how to socialize, what the steps are," she said. "Brown can tell us legally what to do, but socially we have to work that out ourselves. And that takes a commitment on our part."

Call to action

Coleman: 'Diffusion of knowledge' fosters a democratic society

During his remarks at the MBA's "Diversity in the Profession" conference, James E. Coleman, Jr., spoke about his work in preparing the ABA's amicus brief for the University of Michigan affirmative action cases and the insights he drew along the way.

He recalled his research for a core rationale to support affirmative action in higher education. He said he found it in the Massachusetts constitution of 1780, in the concept of "the diffusion of knowledge."

It is "the democratic and compelling purpose of public education," he said, "and it is a fundamental function of democratic government. Moreover, in a multiracial and multiethnic society, the diffusion of knowledge must be among all of the different racial and ethnic groups that make up the people as a whole."

The diffusion of knowledge "also serves to assimilate diverse groups of people into a functioning democracy," Coleman said.

Similarly, he said, the integrity of our judicial system "is inseparably linked to the diversity of our legal profession."

The principle of equal justice under law, he said, requires public trust that the justice system is fair in its treatment of all people. And without lawyers and judges from all races and cultures, that principle can't survive.

But meaningful diversity cannot be achieved without "a commitment from the top of our profession or without the full engagement in the profession by lawyers of color," Coleman said.

"The key to real diversity in the legal profession," said Coleman, is that "there is no affirmative action pledge that will produce more meaningful results than can be achieved by senior partners of law firms actually giving lawyers of color a meaningful chance to work personally with them on the important matters that they undertake for their most valued clients. Too often, law firms hire promising young lawyers of all races and background, and then ignore them, until the leave dispirited and sometimes defeated. The simple truth is that real affirmative action begins only after a lawyer is hired. Until we accept that truth, and personally act on it, a lot of well-intentioned effort to diversify our profession will continue to disappoint us."

Following the panelists' presentations, the conference attendees and panelists tried to tackle the "pipeline" topic in a discussion forum sparked by frank talk and interesting ideas.

Among the ideas explored was a law school bootcamp, in which experienced professional would assist minority students who are faltering in school, that strives to avoid the stigma of affirmative action programs.

"It's about marketing," said Hodge. "You don't pitch it as a remedial program. You pitch it as a chance to meet future employers!"

Ward noted that his school has run a similar "program for academic success" that after several years "was seen as a track to the law review."

According to Greco, "the pipeline starts in junior high school. We need to inoculate students with the notion that a profession in the law is attainable."

William Cowan, an attorney with Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky & Popeo in Boston and president of the Mass. Black Lawyers Association, said one thing he hears regularly in his role on his firm's recruitment committee is that Boston remains "the last place black lawyers want to come work and live." This "problem of perception," he said, involves economic realities, racial barriers, as well as social and entertainment limitation for young, single attorneys.

Cowan said it is especially up to lawyers of color to combat these concerns. "But lawyers of color just aren't as active as they can or should be," he said. "And I don't have the answer to that."

Lissy Medvedow, executive director of the Women's Bar, told the group of her organization's "mentoring circles," which bring together experienced practitioners, young lawyers and law students in a unique approach to the "pipeline" challenges for women attorneys.

"We need to be more welcoming to students of color, in hope they stay here," added Julio Hernando, past president of the Massachusetts Association of Hispanic Attorneys. "We must help students succeed in school and open the resources of the profession to keep them here."

In closing the conference, MBA President Van Nostrand summed up the key points of the day, noting that, "the common theme is this is a continuum. We have to do it not just in 2004, but in '05, '06 and beyond. And there's no better time for that than on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Brown. Let us recommit ourselves to where we have to go."

James E. Coleman, Jr., senior associate dean at Duke University (left), and ABA President-Elect Nominee Michael S. Greco were the featured speakers at the MBA's May diversity summit.

Kay Hodge, chair of the ABA Presidential Advisory Council on Diversity in the Profession and past president of the MBA, gives a presentation during the MBA's diversity conference.

MBA President Richard Van Nostrand chats with Rhode Island Bar President-Elect Jametta Alston, a panelist at the MBA diversity conference.

From left, Myong Joun, president-elect of the Asian American Lawyers Association of Massachusetts, and Oscar Cruz Jr. and Julio Hernando, president and past president, respectively, of the Mass. Association of Hispanic Attorneys, chat with MBA Vice President Warren Fitzgerald during the MBA's diversity summit.

MBA President Richard Van Nostrand (right) talks with Kimberly Jones of Looney & Grossman, Boston, and William Cowan of Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky & Popeo, Boston and president of the Mass. Black Lawyers Association, during a break at the MBA's recent diversity conference.