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ABA Diversity Summit 2009: Achieving Diversity in the Profession

By Deidrie Buchanan

Ten years after the chief legal officers of approximately 500 major corporations signed the document entitled “Diversity in the Workplace—A Statement of Legal Principles,” and five years after 110 general counsels signed the “Call to Action,” 200 members of the American Bar Association (ABA) gathered in National Harbor, Maryland, to not only discuss the importance of diversity in the legal profession, but also to identify pivotal steps and changes to be made in the legal community to further diversity efforts.

The attendees at the ABA’s Diversity Summit mirrored the diverse society in which we now live. The Summit included approximately 200 attorneys from different racial and ethnic groups, as well as attorneys with diverse sexual orientations, and attorneys with various types of disabilities. A truly diverse group of attorneys gathered for two days in National Harbor to identify the necessary steps that remain to be taken to achieve diversity in the legal profession. The purpose of the Summit was to gather recommendations to be implemented by a special committee designated by the ABA to work on increasing the number of diverse attorneys in the legal profession.

The Diversity Summit began with a reception on Thursday, June 18, 2009. Opening remarks were given by then ABA President H. Thomas Wells, Jr., then ABA President-Elect Carolyn B. Lamm, and the Honorable James Wynn, Jr. Former ABA president, Dennis Archer, the first African-American ABA president, kicked off the Summit by talking about the importance of diversity in the legal profession. In identifying why we need a diverse legal profession, Mr. Archer discussed the unprecedented results that can be obtained from having diverse perspectives at a conference table. Mr. Archer recapped some of the success that major corporations such as PepsiCo and Wal-Mart have seen as a result of implementing diversity measures. Aside from discussing the benefits of having a diverse legal profession, Mr. Archer also addressed the need to focus diversity efforts on the pipelines. He emphasized the need to start

The Summit continued on Friday morning with addressing the important, yet often unanswered, question of why we need diversity in the legal profession. A panel discussion was held with Irene Recio, Linda Crump, and John Brittain. Arin Reeves, president and founder of the Athens Group, served as the moderator. The panelists offered their own unique perspectives on the importance of diversity in the legal profession. The panel discussions were designed to identify the full range of reasons why we want to promote diversity in the private sector, law schools, and judiciary. Ms. Reeves described the current climate of diversity as being one of fatigue, wherein society has developed a “push mentality” towards diversity. People are pushed towards engaging in diversity efforts, rather than freely engaging in diversity measures. According to Ms. Reeves, to break-down this “push mentality,” the legal community needs to understand why diversity is important. Without having an understanding of the why, the “push mentality” towards diversity will continue, and the fatigue will persist. Mr. Brittain, a professor of law at the University of the District of Columbia School of Law, and former chief counsel and deputy director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law, discussed the need for diversity in the judiciary. According to Mr. Brittain, “a diverse judiciary delivers equal justice and restores the public’s faith in the legal profession.

In addressing the issue of why diversity is desirable, Irene Recio of Reed Smith, LLP pointed out that we need to stop going through “phases of diversity,” wherein a particular minority group is the focus of diversity initiatives for a particular period of time. Rather, we need to have diversity measures that are inclusive of all groups. Increasing diversity should not be limited to racial, ethnic, or gender diversity; instead, the legal community needs to see generational diversity, religious diversity, and diverse sexual orientations.

The idea of inclusion was a theme that resonated throughout the Summit, as attendees emphasized the need to have participants from all facets of society represented in making decisions regarding diversity initiatives. It became evident that diversity initiatives should not be limited to solely increasing the number of attorneys from any particular racial, ethnic, or gender group. Rather the future of diversity should be centered on initiatives that call for the inclusion of individuals representing the vast demographics of our society.

After addressing why diversity is important in the legal profession and the meaning of diversity, Summit attendees engaged in break-out sessions wherein they discussed specific measures that can be taken in order to achieve diversity in the legal profession. In identifying key changes to be made in the legal community, a primary focus was on the pipelines. A consensus was reached that to achieve diversity in the legal profession, efforts need to be directed to the pipelines. Efforts to increase pipeline initiatives, however, should not solely be limited to students at the law-school level; rather, attendees agreed that pipeline strategies need to start as early as elementary school. Specific recommendations regarding pipeline initiatives included developing an ABA database of best pipeline strategies from second grade upwards, creating a crash course for third-year law students on how to survive in the legal profession after law school, and increasing funding to elementary schools so that they can initiate debate programs for students.

In discussing the need to fix the current leaks in the pipelines, Summit attendees did not ignore the obvious financial obstacle that students face in attending law school. Summit attendees discussed the idea of a new call to action with the focus of making law schools more affordable. A recommendation was made to develop new partnerships between law schools and law firms to fund the education of a diverse attorney, not only through scholarship opportunities but also by having a guaranteed job waiting for that attorney upon completion of law school. A “3 + 3 + 1” program was discussed, wherein a diverse student would spend three years in college, followed by three years in law school, and then have a job guaranteed upon the completion of law school.

Aside from discussing pipeline initiatives, attendees in the break-out sessions also discussed measures that could be implemented in holding corporate America accountable for diversity initiatives. Specific strategies that were discussed included the ABA publishing a “best for diversity” list, firms giving billable hour credit for hours spent on work to attain diversity goals, and corporations withholding a percentage of a firm’s compensation until diversity performance is established.

After identifying the key areas that need to be targeted in creating diversity initiatives, Summit attendees met Friday afternoon to discuss the problem of retention of diverse attorneys in the legal profession. The afternoon session began with a panel discussion. The panelists included Jose Roberto Juarez, Jr., John Lewis, and Holly Fujie, and the moderator for the panel, Juanita C. Hernandez. Panelists discussed the responsibility law firms need to share in encouraging retention of diverse attorneys. During the panel discussion, the panelists emphasized the importance of law firms creating an environment that meets the needs of their associates. Aside from providing the requisite training, panelists discussed the need for a nurturing work environment that encourages mentoring.

Following the panel discussion, the attendees broke out into group sessions to identify key steps that can be taken to improve the retention of diverse attorneys in the legal profession. The general consensus seemed to be that to keep diverse attorneys within the profession, good mentoring relationships must be in place. Attendees suggested that mentoring efforts should not be limited to the traditional matching of individuals from similar ethnic or racial groups. Rather, mentoring should be an inclusive effort that is focused on building inter-diversity coalitions.   

On Saturday morning, the Honorable Cruz Reynoso kicked off the morning by discussing the obstacles students face in getting into law schools and getting admitted to the bar. Judge Reynoso pointed out that law schools are neither admitting nor graduating a diverse population; thus, efforts at increasing diversity in the legal profession need to be focused on (1) getting diverse students into law schools, and (2) getting diverse attorneys admitted to their respective state bar associations. In addressing possible solutions to these two problems, Judge Reynoso suggested that law schools become more affordable and that there should be more public law schools.

Aside from the economic obstacle to getting into law school, Judge Reynoso recommended a reevaluation of the criteria used in admitting students to law schools. In regards to the problem that minorities have a low bar passage rate, Judge Reynoso suggested that funding be provided to diverse graduating law students to enroll in bar exam preparatory courses.

In addition, Judge Reynoso proposed an apprenticeship for lawyers, wherein a graduating law student would be able to practice for two or three years under the supervision of a licensed attorney and then become automatically admitted to the bar. The Summit culminated with a final panel discussion on the legal profession’s responsibility to society to promote a diverse legal system. Panelists for this discussion included the Honorable Ming W. Chin, Simone Wu, and Michele Coleman Mayes. Scott LaBarre served as moderator.

During the course of the Summit, speakers and attendees remained mindful of the achievements that have been made in developing diversity in the legal profession. However, they also openly acknowledged that a lot still remains to be done. The three next pivotal steps identified at the Summit include: (1) Lead it—the ABA and leaders in all sectors need to be able to answer the question “why diversity?” In addition, the ABA will appoint a special committee to ensure the actions discussed at the Summit will be put in place; (2) Teach it—diverse law students must be taught skills for success; and (3) Afford it—new partnerships need to be forged to “stock the pipeline” and make law school more affordable.

This new call to action focuses well beyond efforts to achieve and maintain diversity in our profession. It reaches deeply into pipeline issues and focuses on making the profession more attractive to a diverse population by encouraging students at a young age to join the legal profession and by making legal education more attractive, attainable, and affordable.

Keywords: diversity, mentoring, ethnicity, discrimination

Deidrie Buchanan is an associate with Powers, McNalis, Torres & Teebagy in West Palm Beach, Florida.

This article appears in the forthcoming fall 2009 issue of Minority Trial Lawyer, from the Minority Trial Lawyer Committee.


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