Next Steps Challenge: Encouraging Young Lawyer Organizations to Increase Diversity in the Pipeline to the Legal Profession

Volume 37, Number 6

By

Melissa J. Healy is an Assistant Editor of The Affiliate and an Associate in the Portland, Oregon, office of Stoel Rives LLP.

The “Next Steps Challenge” is an initiative designed to encourage young lawyer organizations to share information about existing projects and develop new programs for increasing diversity in the pipeline to the legal profession. The idea for the Challenge grew out of an April 2010 report by the ABA Presidential Initiative Commission on Diversity entitled Diversity in the Legal Profession: The Next Steps. The Next Steps Report, which was the culmination of a two-year effort to analyze the state of diversity in the legal profession, provided practical recommendations for advancing diversity in a variety of legal settings, including law schools, law firms, corporate law departments, the judiciary, government, and bar associations. Seeking to capitalize on the wealth of information in the report, ABA YLD leaders first began formulating the parameters of the Next Steps Challenge during a tactical meeting with then-Chair-Elect Michael Bergmann in late 2010. The goal was simple: to encourage affiliates to engage in diversity programming with an eye toward adopting some of the many recommendations in the Next Steps Report. Thanks to generous contributions of funds from Walmart and the ABA’s Center for Racial and Ethnic Diversity, the ABA YLD was able to offer subgrants to the top two affiliate projects or programs.

The Challenge recently concluded its first cycle, awarding subgrants to affiliates from the Arkansas Bar Association Young Lawyers Section and the North Carolina Bar Association Young Lawyers Division. ABA YLD Diversity Director Myra McKenzie and Affiliates Director Sarah Sharp Theophilus guided the Challenge through its inaugural year, which began in mid-2011 when letters were sent to affiliates outlining the basics of the Challenge. The Challenge was further detailed at the ABA YLD Fall Conference in Seattle, where the Division hosted a panel discussion highlighting two programs designed to address the “diversity pipeline”: (1) a two-day conference open to underrepresented high school students who were interested in the legal profession and (2) an eight-week summer internship in which diverse college students completed rotations through different legal practice settings, including the judiciary, corporate legal departments, nonprofit or public sector entities, and law firms.

After the Fall Conference, participants were asked to submit a detailed program plan, progress report on program implementation, and final report describing activity dates, outcomes, audience member numbers, young lawyer participant numbers, and proposed plans for expansion with the subgrant award. The ABA YLD received submissions from around the country from both state and local affiliates and in the end, four finalists were chosen. Each was introduced during the ABA YLD Spring Conference in Nashville and given the opportunity to present their respective programs in detail and take questions during a special hour-long showcase.

The finalist programs were as follows, each designed to address many of the bar association and law firm recommendations contained in the Next Steps Report:

  • The Arkansas Bar Association Young Lawyers Section presented its “College Road Tour,” in which the YLS partnered with two HBCUs (“Historically Black Colleges and Universities”) to present a panel discussion entitled “What I Wish I Knew Before Law School.”

Panelists discussed how to get admitted to and succeed in law school, and they participated in a question-and-answer session with attendees. The event was so successful that one college invited the YLS to come back and teach a legal writing workshop, which occurred in April and is set to run again this fall.

  • The North Carolina Bar Association Young Lawyers Division presented its “Legal LINK” program, in which the YLD presented four one-hour sessions to 10th grade students chosen by their social studies teachers at a high school in Durham, North Carolina. Each session featured speakers (including bar association leaders, law school professors, and young lawyers) as well as a question-and-answer session, and covered one letter of the “LINK” acronym (Leadership, Interactive, Networking, Knowledge).

The leadership program included interactive discussions on leading in the classroom and leading by example. The information program focused on the law school admissions process and what qualities admissions officials are looking for in prospective law students. The networking program was a luncheon with a simulated speed-networking session during which students rotated every 10 minutes and spoke to a variety of legal professionals. The knowledge program included a discussion with bar association leaders about what the law is and what lawyers do.

  • The Tennessee Bar Association Young Lawyers Division presented its “Diversity Leadership Institute” program, in which underrepresented second- and third-year students at law schools within the state applied for a program designed to (1) help participants develop the skills they need to succeed as law students and attorneys and (2) empower them to contribute to the legal community in the future. DLI kicked off with a two-day retreat that focused on “Leadership and Diversity in the Profession,” and over the next six months participants met with mentors handpicked based on their practice area and geographic location, attended CLEs, and performed public service. This year, the group chose to volunteer at Bridges Inc., a center developed to advance racial, economic, educational, and environmental justice among youth and young adults.
  • The Kentucky Bar Association Young Lawyers Section presented its “Kentucky Excellence in Diversity” program, a two-part program that combined brainstorming sessions about diversity with a free program for diverse high school seniors and college freshmen. The brainstorming sessions focused on increasing attendance to and generating more positive responses about diversity programming. One session was held in an urban setting, while the other was held in a rural area. The free program was held June 1 and was an overnight gathering during which participants had the opportunity to tour a law school, sit in on a mock law school class, and have one-on-one conversations with judges and lawyers.

Although the Arkansas Bar Association Young Lawyers Section and the North Carolina Bar Association Young Lawyers Division were chosen as the official subgrant winners, Diversity Director McKenzie says that ABA YLD leaders were impressed by the overall quality of the submissions and commended the hard work that affiliates put into the programming. The Challenge is set to run for at least another year, and new deadlines will be announced shortly. “This will be a great opportunity for affiliates who didn’t finish their projects last year to re-apply,” McKenzie said, “and ultimately, we look forward to receiving more entries in the future.”

If you would like to learn more about the Next Steps Challenge as well as hear from the winners of this year’s Challenge, please attend the Affiliate Teleconference on July 18, 2012, at 11:00 a.m. CST. For call-in information, please contact Sarah Theophilus with the Affiliate Assistance Team at Sarah.Theophilus@va.gov.

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