Bars Draw From Successes, And Each Other, To Keep Diversity Efforts Moving

Volume 31 Number 4

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Two years after it was formally launched, the Evansville (Ind.) Bar Association committee charged with improving diversity in the profession has implemented a number of programs, thanks to the zeal of its dozen members.

“I’ve got a very active and vibrant committee who take their subcommittee assignments very seriously,” says Ross Rudolph, the panel’s chair. “They’re great to work with.”

While he is pleased with the work they’ve done so far at the 400-member bar in southwestern Indiana, Rudolph remains concerned about the committee’s future.

“Everybody likes to see results immediately. That’s the nature of people,” he says. “But as I told people at the beginning, this is a 15-year project. I don’t know if we’ll be able to keep it up. I am 51 years old, you know.”

Rudolph’s worries are shared by other bar leaders who have implemented diversity efforts in the profession—even bars that have been working on the issue longer than Evansville.

Although reports, surveys, and anecdotes point to the need for an active bar diversity task force or committee, it can often take awhile to move to the next stage of implementing meaningful diversity initiatives. And once those programs are launched, it can often be challenging to maintain member interest in initiatives that don’t always yield immediate, tangible results, while also determining just what role the bar should play in promoting diversity.

Despite those challenges, many bars are moving ahead with a variety of diversity programs, often learning from their bar peers about ways to invigorate and improve their initiatives. Patience and perseverance are necessary, they say, to tackle an issue they see as critical to the legal profession.

Collaboration helps overcome challenges

The diversity initiative at the 750-member Lancaster (Pa.) Bar Association started almost by accident, according to Executive Director Evelyn Sullivan. A legal services outreach program to the county’s growing Hispanic community brought together a handful of bilingual lawyers for the first time. They soon began working with Sullivan to encourage the area’s largest law firms to promote diversity, as well as implementing an outreach program to encourage minority high school students to consider law careers.

Over the last two years, the bar has been instrumental in bringing three minority lawyers to Lancaster County, Sullivan notes. But the task of attracting lawyers of color can be daunting, particularly since new lawyers often gravitate to large metropolitan areas such as Philadelphia and New York, rather than Lancaster County. That’s why Sullivan has started talking with the neighboring Dauphin County Bar Association in Harrisburg to look at combined regional efforts to bolster diversity.

“I think the synergy of people from one county sharing things with another county will make it more exciting and re-energize people,” she says. “This stuff just takes a long time. It’s a little bit frustrating, but when we make inroads, it feels so much better.”

But even those bars in large metropolitan areas face challenges. The New York City Bar Association has been in the forefront over the last several years in promoting gender diversity initiatives, according to Meredith Moore, the bar’s diversity director. There has been a 10 percent increase in women partners at law firms in the city over the last few years, she says.

Still, more work needs to be done to address hiring and promotion at city firms when it comes to lawyers from minority ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. “We haven’t penetrated to the core issues to really move things forward,” Moore says.

But over the last several months, Moore has been active in organizing roundtable discussions with hiring partners, as well as meeting with other leaders in law firms. “We want to be more targeted and meet with the practice heads,” she adds. “We’re trying to help people to raise awareness.”

Continuity is key

How to keep bar members energized and active is an issue not lost on associations that have recently started diversity initiatives. A year after announcing its program, the Chicago Bar Association has developed a diversity Web site, expanded an annual diversity conference, and begun gathering signatures from large law firms committed to fostering diversity in their hiring and in monetary support for the bar, says Sharon Jones, the chair of the bar diversity committee.

It was important early on, she says, to build support for the bar’s efforts not only in the legal community, but within the bar staff itself—and that started with keeping in close contact with Executive Director Terry Murphy. “The executive directors matter,” says Jones, president of a diversity consulting group. “The president is there for a year; the executive director is there forever.”

That continuity is important, she adds, because promoting and encouraging diversity “is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.”

The New York City Bar, Moore says, is one of the few bars in the country that has a full-time diversity director, such as herself, on staff, devoted to promoting and enhancing diversity initiatives.

“For the volunteer member, [the responsibility] is usually on top of your job and all of your other commitments,” she says. “Having a full-time director really adds continuity and structure.”

As diversity director at the Columbus (Ohio) Bar Association, Annette Hudson-Clay works closely with bar members, placement officers at area law schools, and the partners and associates at city law firms who are responsible for hiring and diversity efforts.

Hudson-Clay, Moore, and other bar leaders say bar staff can play a key role in supporting diversity initiatives by working regularly with members, performing research, and organizing events such as conferences, seminars, and CLE opportunities.

Steady staff support is important to George Hanna, co-chair of the Special Committee on Diversity started last year by the 3,600-member Mecklenburg County Bar in Charlotte, N.C. But another key ingredient to an active diversity committee, he says, is to find the right bar members ready to get involved.

“If you want to have a diversity committee, you need to be diverse,” he says. “The key for us was to get people involved in things that they were interested in doing. You can do a lot of planning, navel-gazing, and next-day quarterbacking. We made a commitment early on to be action-oriented.”

Since it began, the committee has been active in working with local firm leaders, judges, law schools, and students on a variety of programs, Hanna says.

Together, dedicated bar association staff and volunteer members can provide important institutional support for diversity initiatives, bar leaders say. “The bar, in essence, gives you the organizational structure to do this. It gives [diversity] a legitimacy and a support mechanism,” Hanna says. “You need some sort of organizational support, even if it’s nothing more than the next bar president appointing the next diversity committee chair.”

But there is a fine line between support and direction, says Carl Smallwood, the past president of the Columbus bar who was instrumental in launching the bar’s diversity initiative in 2001.

“We provided the staff support that resulted in all of the discussion and decisions, the drafting and the preparation of the reports, and the neutral venue for follow-up,” he says. “But it was not our initiative. This was an initiative of the law firms.”

Adds Hudson-Clay, “The energy comes from the firms. It comes from the leadership of the firms committed to diversity.” (For more information on the Columbus initiative, see “The Columbus experience,” page 7.)

Sharing what works

As diversity efforts move forward at bars nationwide, another energy source that many are discovering is each other. Hanna isn’t shy about giving credit to the Columbus bar and others for giving his committee ideas they’ve put in place.

“Virtually everything we’ve done was generated somewhere else, and I’m not embarrassed by that. I’m really kind of proud of it,” he says. “There is a lot you can learn from other people.”

In California, the State Bar of California created a Pipeline Task Force to look at why people of color remain underrepresented in the legal profession, compared to the population. The task force’s goal is to review diversity programs nationwide with the intent of creating a database of best practices that can be used by any bar, firm, law school, or law-related organization in the country.

“Partnerships and collaborations up and down the pipeline will be a key component to the success of these model pipeline diversity programs,” says Ruthe Catolico Ashley, the task force chair.

Meanwhile, Smallwood says he is prepared to talk to just about any bar or law-related organization in the country about the Columbus experience. Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and Kansas City are just a few of the places he has already been; he’s been heartened by the response.

“It is the story of the process we went through to fashion the initiative,” he says. “It is a story that says, ‘Nothing worthwhile is easy.’ This was hard work.”

That underlying fact, he and others say, is probably the most difficult thing to accept for bars tackling the diversity issue in the profession. That is why it is important, they say, to be positive about incremental improvements.

“We’re trying to identify and cultivate success,” Moore says. “Getting success stories out there is the secret to moving into the next phase of the solution.”

In the meantime, well aware that that there may be setbacks and challenges, bar leaders like Rudolph say they’re excited to make the long-term commitment to increasing diversity in the profession.

“I don’t know if we’ll be able to keep it up,” he admits. “But I’d sure rather try, than not try it at all.”

 

THE COLUMBUS EXPERIENCE

 

When Carl Smallwood helped launch the Columbus (Ohio) Bar Association’s Managing Partners’ Diversity Initiative as the bar’s president in 2001, there were 14 minority managing partners and 47 minority lawyers at some two dozen city firms.

Now, the number of minority managing partners at those firms has doubled to 28 and the number of minority lawyers has more than doubled, reaching 102. The initiative has become a model for many other bar associations. But the bar’s work isn’t done.

“It is extremely rewarding and meaningful to help the legal community in Columbus become what it seeks to be—more diverse,” Smallwood says. “The current focus is now on retention. The gains we’ve made will be lost if we can’t retain people.”

Smallwood and Annette Hudson-Clay, director of the diversity initiative, say that several factors have contributed to the positive numbers. Among the most important: the financial and verbal support of the city’s leading law firms.

“I thought it was critical that we ask the firms to memorialize their commitment to diversity,” says Smallwood, a partner at Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease, a firm of nearly 400 lawyers headquartered in Columbus. “We created an action plan. The law firm leaders were clear about not creating a plan that went on a shelf.”

As a result, the initiative is successfully moving into the next phase of the plan, which looks not only externally at local law firms, Hudson-Clay says, but internally at the bar as well. A consultant has been hired to identify problem areas in the initiative’s first five years, and an internal diversity audit will also be conducted to find areas for improvement.

“For example, are we finding attorneys of color to present at CLE?” Hudson-Clay asks. “The next five years are critical.”

The bar will also be active in holding roundtable discussions, presenting CLE events on diversity, and interviewing minority lawyers who left the Columbus area to determine why they left, she adds. Hudson-Clay echoes Smallwood in saying they’ll remain available to talk to any bar associations about their experiences.

“The legal profession is behind the times when it comes to diversity,” she says. “Maybe we can be an example of how you start and continue this journey.”

—R.J.D.

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