Diversity conference looks at ways to open the organized bar

Issue May 2004 By Richard C. Van Nostrand

On Jan. 23, 2004, a sold-out room at the MBA's Annual Conference Gala Dinner had the pleasure of hearing Marion Wright Edelman give the keynote address. Edelman, perhaps the nation's foremost advocate for the rights of children, was a remarkable speaker as she reminded us of the good that we can do as lawyers. Not content with just reminding us, Edelman exhorted us to use the gifts with which we have been blessed to make the world a better place for our children and coming generations.

In introducing Edelman, I found it remarkable that she was the first African-American woman to be admitted to practice law in the state of Mississippi, a "first" that had occurred only during the relatively brief period that I have been on this planet. There are any number of similar "firsts" that have only occurred in the recent past: first African-American Supreme Court justice, first Hispanic senator, first African-American American Bar Association president and first African-American Massachusetts senator. However, with the exception of the movies and television, some "firsts" have not yet occurred, first minority governor, first minority speaker of the house or president of the senate, first minority vice president, first minority chief justice, first minority president.

Looking at this glass as half full, at least many such "firsts" have occurred. Much good has happened in the nearly 50 years since Brown v. Board of Education was decided. Hopefully, this has paved the way for further progress toward a society that is wholly embracing of cultural plurality, a society where there truly is equal opportunity for all.

While the road has been an uneven one with no shortage of obstacles, this progress cannot be ignored nor should it be diminished. Furthermore, we can all take heart that our journey seems to be leading toward a great destination.

Diversity and multiculturalism, regardless of profession or station in life, provides a richness and texture to life not possible in a homogeneous society. Hopefully, as a society, we have progressed to the point where an increasing majority of us desire to see the end to prejudice. We desire to see all people provided the same opportunities in employment, in housing, in education, regardless of the color of their skin or the surname of their parents. At the same time, we can all derive the benefits of living in a heterogeneous society.

Unfortunately, extremely troubling signs suggest that the legal profession may be heading in the wrong direction. As reported in Miles to Go: Progress of Minorities in the Legal Profession, published by the American Bar Association's Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession, minority representation in the legal profession is already 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. If these divergent trends go unchecked, our profession will become even less representative of our population than it already is.

This "pipeline" issue should be of great concern to all. Similarly troublesome is the fact that law students of color complete their legal education in much lower numbers than the general law school population. And finally, hiring practices, even those that appear objectively race-neutral, may be hindering the success within the profession for those persons of color who have cleared the first two hurdles.

The Massachusetts Bar Association feels strongly about diversity and the need for action.

On May 11, the MBA will conduct a conference entitled "Diversity in the Profession." At that conference, our keynote speaker will be Professor James E. Coleman of Duke University School of Law. Coleman was a valuable member of the legal team that represented the University of Michigan in the landmark affirmative action cases Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger. He is also a distinguished professor of criminal law and legal ethics and currently chairs the ABA's Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project, previously chairing the ABA's Individual Rights and Responsibilities Section. He will undoubtedly kick off this effort in an inspiring manner.

Coleman's remarks will be followed by a panel presentation and breakout sessions on the pipeline issue, success in law school and in starting one's legal career and diversifying the organized bar's membership and leadership. Our hope is that these breakout sessions will serve as incubators for ideas, which will then become meaningful and successful projects in our efforts to embrace diversity.

This conference is intended to be merely a beginning. We need all of you, our members to recognize the importance of this effort and help us in accomplishing this extraordinarily important goal.