Task Force on Diversity teams reach out to high school, college students

Issue May 2006 By Bill Archambeault

The MBA's newly formed Task Force on Diversity is sending out teams of attorneys to speak to high school and college students over the next several weeks, the first step in a long-term effort to diversify the legal profession in Massachusetts.

The task force, which formed in January, is sending the teams out throughout May to talk about the benefits of a diverse legal profession. This spring's efforts will be loosely tied into Law Day activities, but the plan is for the teams to make regular visits to area schools.

"We thought it would be a great idea to talk to inner-city high school kids and talk about the ways the Massachusetts courts have been at the forefront of societal change," said Valerie A. Yarashus, an MBA vice president and the co-chair of the task force.

The other co-chair is Robert W. Harnais, a Quincy attorney and president of the Massachusetts Association of Hispanic Attorneys. In February, independent of the task force, Harnais spoke to students at Northern Essex Community College with Judge Angela M. Ordonez, Nantucket Probate and Family Court, and Judge Jose Sanchez, Essex County Juvenile Court Department, in a format similar to the one the task force's teams will use. Harnais and the judges were scheduled to speak to students for 45 minutes about how to pursue legal careers, but ended up staying two hours answering students' questions.

"They were eager to know, and they didn't know the first step about how to go in the direction of law school," Harnais said. "The Diversity Task Force is going to see that there's an eagerness to become lawyers, but the knowledge about how to do that may not be there."

Twelve teams of two people each Ñ a minority attorney paired with an MBA officer or member Ñ have been meeting individually on a monthly basis to get familiar with each other before heading into the schools, including the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School.

Specifically, the task force wants minority students to consider pursuing legal careers. More broadly, the goal is to instill teenagers with an appreciation for the ways the legal profession affects their lives Ñ even if they don't want to be a lawyer or judge.

"We want to highlight the stories of individuals and highlight how so much progress has been achieved over the years with people working together," Yarashus said. She noted, for example, that Massachusetts was the first state to rule that slavery violated its state Constitution.

The task force is reaching out to minority bar associations in the state to collaborate on the effort, and ideally, minority judges will join the teams speaking in the schools.

"We're going to reach out all across the state and reach a variety of schools," she said, including colleges, where the task force hopes to form relationships with minority student associations on a number of campuses. "The long-term goal is that we'll get some continuity and go back to the same schools and build some familiarity and build a presence."

Harnais said it is crucial that the MBA commit itself to the diversity effort over the long term if any real headway is to be made.

"We can't think this is going to have a noticeable impact right away. It won't. But it's an important step in making a noticeable impact. It will make an impact down the road as long as it's consistently done," said Harnais. He noted that in recent meetings with MBA President Warren Fitzgerald, Yarashus and others, he's been convinced that the MBA leadership is committed to a long-term effort.

"The MBA's made it clear in my meetings with them that there's a long-term need," Harnais said. "They all show sincerity in what they're doing. It's refreshing to see people like Warren and people like Valerie taking the steps to do it."

In June, the task force plans to form an advisory group made up of minority judges and attorneys. The task force is part of a larger MBA effort to promote and support diversity within the profession, including the membership and leadership of the MBA.

Yarashus, who will serve as vice president again in 2006-07, pointed to the Asian American Lawyers Association of Massachusetts annual banquet on April 6 as an example of the MBA's growing commitment to minority bar associations. The MBA was a sponsor and had a strong showing of representatives at the dinner, Yarashus said.

"We're actively working with minority bar associations on how to cooperate and increase participation," she said.