Goal IX Newsletter

Summer 2001, Volume 7, Number 3

Minority Leadership in the Bar - First Woman of Color, First Government Lawyer Becomes 76th President of California's State Bar by: Adrienne M. Byers

"My only goal is to improve the stature of the bar and its lawyers with everyone that we touch: the public, the lawyers, and the legislature," says Karen S. Nobumoto regarding her upcoming term as the first woman of color president of the 175,000-member State Bar of California. This past March, Nobumoto, 49, bested four other candidates for the state bar's leadership position; she begins her one-year term in September 2001.

Adrienne M. Byers

A prosecutor in the career criminal unit of the district attorney's target crimes division, Nobumoto will be the first government lawyer and only the second woman ever to lead the largest state bar in the country. During her tenure, she reports, she will focus on fiscal responsibility, improved use of technology, bar governance, and public access to legal services.

The state bar, after nearly being dismantled a few years ago by an assault of politics and legislation, is in the process of rebuilding. "For nearly two years we did not know whether we would continue to have the right to self-govern," recalls Nobumoto. "Now we've streamlined the discipline system and reduced the amount of dues; increased the amount of legal services to the poor that we administer within the state; and regained the respect of the [California] legislature and governor, who are looking at approving the funding of our activities on a more long-range basis. In other words, times are better than they have been in a long while."

 Just twelve years out of law school, Nobumoto has been a longtime bar activist. She positioned herself to run for state bar presidency at the urging of friends and colleagues, including several judges and multicultural bar association lawyers. "Failure was not an option," she notes. She participated in the state bar even before becoming a lawyer, as the first law student member of the state bar's Ethnic Minority Relations Committee. She followed this with years of state and local bar association activity, serving in 1997 as president of the John M. Langston Bar Association, a Los Angeles-based African American specialty bar; becoming a member of California Governor Gray Davis's Diversity Task Force; and joining the Association of Deputy District Attorneys. A founding fellow of the Foundation of the state bar, Nobumoto currently chairs the state bar's Legal and Appointments Committees. She has been honored by popular local news radio station KFWB as one of Los Angeles County's "Unsung Heroes," and was named Prosecutor of the Year by the Century City Bar Association.

"Karen's meteoric rise within the state bar is due to her focus, energy, and commitment," says Patricia Phillips, past president of the Los Angeles County Bar Association and former state bar Board of Governors member. "She's an extraordinarily hard worker who never gives up."
Not one to shy away from spirited discussion, Nobumoto focused much of her attention during her three-year term on the state bar Board of Governors on increasing diversity within the legal profession. "Here I am, constantly advocating -to put it mildly-for more diversity within the state bar, and they elect me president anyway."

"Karen is a consummate leader, a team builder, and an outspoken advocate for rights of disenfranchised individuals," observes Carol Codrington, a Los Angeles deputy city attorney and past chair of the state bar's Ethnic Minority Relations Committee. "She fearlessly advocates for members of the bar whose interests might otherwise be ignored."

Nobumoto acknowledges that her viewpoint is often different. "I've never tried to pretend otherwise." The daughter of an African American mother, Lena, and Japanese American father, Micheo, Nobumoto uses her perspective to build consensus and find common ground. "The state bar is a very complex organization," she notes. "You somehow have to create a public policy arm with different interests but still attain a unified public policy." If anyone can do that, Nobumoto can, says Phillips. "Karen's a great consensus builder because she understands people."

Chris Leong, past president of the Southern California Chinese Lawyers Association and a lawyer with the State of California Department of Real Estate, agrees and lauds Nobumoto's efforts to encourage and energize more government lawyers to become active with the state bar. "She's generating renewed interest in the bar, which is really important at this rebuilding stage."

There is also interest in Nobumoto herself. Already, she has been asked more than a few times whether she is the president of the "African American statewide" bar association. Her response is straightforward: "No, my constituency is the entire state-in which 85 percent of the attorneys are white and the majority of its citizens is not."

Political and legal hot-button issues, such as the passage of California's anti-affirmative action legislation, can also affe  ct this delicate balance. Potentially controversial race-sensitive statewide issues such as an antiracial profiling bill and a racial privacy initiative designed to eliminate race-gathering statistics (see Goal IX, Spring 2001 at 6) are also pressing topics in California. "In the end, we must level the economic playing field. Affirmative action was not designed to empower the upper-middle class," Nobumoto says. "I think that everyone can agree with the goal of achieving economic parity. To accomplish real change, you have to bring the masses of people along with you, not alienate them. We have to develop relationships and find a middle ground to move us forward."

Nobumoto will continue to forge new relationships and give back to the community through her service to the state bar and local bar associations. "It's important for me to be there for law school students, for our members and their various bar associations throughout the state, and for the community as a whole," she says.

Adrienne M. Byers is a lawyer with the Los Angeles County Counsel's office and immediate past president of the Black Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles, Inc.

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