A Change at the Top: Diversity Among Bar Presidents

By Robert J. Derocher

Robert J. Derocher is a freelance writer living in Loudonville, New York. He may be reached at . This article is an updated version of one that originally appeared in the March/April 2003 issue of Bar Leader magazine (Vol 27, Num 4, © 2003 American Bar Association).

Dennis W. Archer and Robert J. Grey Jr. can measure how far people of color have come in the law profession when they walk into an ABA leadership meeting, the House of Delegates, or any number of ABA gatherings today, just a few decades after they first joined the organization.

“At my first ABA meeting in 1972, I walked into a large room of lawyers, overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly white. There was nobody of color to be seen who had a leadership position,” Archer says.

Grey recalls a similar experience a quarter-century ago: “I walked into the room and I could count the number of minorities on one hand—and still have some fingers left.”

It was only four years ago when Archer made history as the first African American and first person of color as president of the ABA, succeeded by Grey, who was the first person of color to chair the ABA House of Delegates in 1998.

“It’s a lot different today,” Grey says. “I think we have, in a short period of time, made a strong statement about the association being an open organization.”

A look at the executives and committee and division chairs at the ABA, as well as at various state and local bars, seems to bear Grey out. Even during the last three years since Grey took the ABA helm, bars have continued to make strides in introducing more women and people of color to bar leadership positions.

Despite the gains, Archer, Grey, and others know that the diversity efforts of bar associations both national and local need to continue if diverse leadership is to become a regular part of the bar landscape. Several associations have only recently seen a person of color assume the bar presidency, while others lag even further. Even more troubling, they say, are numbers that show that the profession overall is struggling to attract more people of color.

But as long as bars enhance existing diverse leadership initiatives or start new ones, they say, there is confidence that associations both large and small will see diversity grow in all areas of the profession. It is growth, they say, that continues to need nurturing and will ultimately benefit the entire legal profession.

Change at the ABA

For Robert Grey, the effort by the organized bar to diversify the profession’s leadership is a natural. “Lawyers have fought for equality in the cities, in the legislatures, in the workplaces, for years. It’s our calling,” he says. “I’ve always thought, ‘If there is anybody who can get this right, it’s us.’”

Still, as evidenced by the recollections of Grey, Archer, and others, the effort is still relatively young. The ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession just marked its 20th anniversary last year. The percentage of minority appointments to key leadership positions by the ABA president has risen from 11 percent 15 years ago to 26.5 percent this year under President Karen Mathis.

Along with the increase in presidential appointments, one of the key places where Archer sees progress in the ABA is at the committee and officer level. In particular he points to people such as Florida attorney Stephen Zack and U.S. District Court Judge Bernice Donald of Tennessee.

Zack, a native of Cuba, completed a two-year term last year as the first Hispanic American chair of the ABA House of Delegates. Donald, the first African American woman elected to the Tennessee State Judiciary, was selected this year as the ABA’s first African American woman Secretary-Elect.

“The nominators are recognizing the tremendous work ethic that women and lawyers of color bring to the ABA leadership,” Archer says. “They’ve rolled up their sleeves and worked their way up through the committees. And as they’ve demonstrated their work ethic, brilliance, and leadership, then they’re invited to join [ABA] leadership.” Zack and Donald, he adds, are poised and well-qualified to be pioneering ABA presidents, as well.

Grey says that diversity among the ABA Sections, in particular, has improved through the years as a result of the organization’s efforts, as well as the sections themselves, which “have taken [diversity] on as a major priority,” Grey adds. “It was helpful also to have Dennis and I lead the association and have people take notice.”

Another example of that improvement: Kim J. Askew, a partner in the Dallas office of Hughes & Luce L.L.P., was sworn in as Chair of the ABA Section of Litigation at the 2006 Annual Meeting in Hawaii. Askew is the first lawyer of color to serve in that post.

Also in 2006-2007, the 67-member ABA House of Delegates Nominating Committee added one minority member, bringing the total to 13, according to the Goal IX Report 2006-2007: The Status of Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the American Bar Association, which was released in February.

Among other positive findings in the report:

• Five of the 31 ABA Sections, Divisions, and Forums recorded all-time high participation rates from minority members since the establishment of the Goal IX reports.

• The General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division was named to the Committee Honor Roll for its Diversity Fellowship Program, two diversity awards programs, and its regular participation in the ABA National Conference for the Minority Lawyer. “Given the numbers of minority lawyers who practice as solo practitioners or in small firms, the diversity work of this Division is crucial in serving their needs and interests,” the Goal IX report stated.

• The ABA Young Lawyers Division (YLD) has the highest participation rate of minorities among all the ABA Divisions (28.7 percent), and this year the YLD selected its first Asian Pacific American officer.

The Goal IX reports provide a healthy barometer not only for racial and ethnic diversity, but also for women involved in ABA activities as well. The Goal IX Report Card, released in February by the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, showed some improvement for women in ABA leadership positions.

In 2006-2007, the percentage of section/division chairs who are women rose to 35.7 percent from 32.1 percent. In 1990-1991, the total was 4 percent. In the House of Delegates, women in leadership positions rose slightly, from 26.5 percent in 2005-2006 to 27.6 percent.

State and Local Bars

Kay Hodge finds encouragement in the Goal IX reports—and she can look at those reports from many different angles. The first Asian Pacific American president of the Massachusetts Bar Association, Hodge chairs the ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity and is president-elect of the National Conference of Bar Presidents (NCBP).

Hodge is particularly pleased with statistics compiled by the NCBP showing that as of January, 33 state bars and 56 local bars have had or will soon have presidents of color. “Most of the state and local bars get it,” she says. “Diversity is, for every bar association, an important component of how they plan.”

Hodge also can look around and see that several diversity-related initiatives at state and local bars—as well as many historic elections of bar presidents of color—have occurred in the four years since Dennis Archer became ABA president.

Among the achievements of state and local bars in that time span:

• The 2006-2007 Washington State Bar Association (WSBA) Board of Governors is the most diverse board in its history. In addition, this year marks the third year of the WSBA Leadership Institute, which was established to provide bar leadership and education opportunities, primarily for young lawyers of color.

• In January the State Bar of Arizona’s Board of Governors approved the hiring of a diversity director and the creation of a leadership institute similar to the WSBA’s—two initiatives designed to increase diversity in the legal profession in Arizona. The initiatives were submitted by the bar’s special 80-member Diversity Task Force.

• The Pennsylvania Bar Association (PBA) joined local bar associations, government agencies, and law firms at the PBA Minority Bar Committee’s first day-long Diversity Summit last fall. The summit came two years after Michael Reed completed his term as the first president of color of the PBA.

• In 2004 the Minnesota Minority Bar Summit, a collaboration of the state bar, local and minority bars, and state law schools, launched www.mnlegaldiversity.org, a website devoted to resources, discussion forums, job postings, and information for minority law students and legal professionals, as well as potential employers.

• In 2005 the Nebraska State Bar Association held its first Legal Diversity Summit, which is now an annual event. Also that year, the bar joined with specialty bars and the state’s law schools to start www.nelegaldiversity.org, a website similar to the Minnesota site. The website has grown in popularity each year.

• In 2006 the Columbus Bar Association (CBA) began its second five-year plan to improve diversity in the profession, focusing on helping law firms retain the lawyers of color many had attracted during the first CBA initiative in 2001.

• The National Association of Bar Executives also utilizes a website ( www.abanet.org/nabe/diversity) to promote diversity in bar membership. The website is a clearinghouse of information on local, state, and national diversity programs and initiatives.

Also during the last four years, several more state and local bars have added or plan to add more people of color as presidents for the first time. The state bar presidents include: State Bar of Wisconsin (Michelle Behnke, 2004); Washington State Bar Association (Ronald Ward, 2004); Rhode Island Bar Association (Jametta Alston, 2004); Kansas Bar Association (Michael Crow, 2004); New Hampshire Bar Association (Richard Uchida, 2005); Nebraska State Bar Association (Linda Crump, 2006); and the Missouri Bar (Charlie Harris, 2008).

Local bars with recent or soon-to-be presidents of color are in Indianapolis, Indiana; Nashville, Tennessee; King County, Washington; Travis County, Texas; Dallas, Texas; Howard County, Maryland; West-chester County, New York; and Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.

Maintaining the Momentum

While many bar leaders of color are pleased with the burst of more diverse presidents on the bar scene, there is also strong sentiment among them that this is an opportunity that must not be lost. “My fear is that once the [presidential] pinnacle has been reached, there’s a tendency to get complacent and say, ‘Gee, haven’t we been successful?’” says Robert Gonzales, the first Hispanic American president of the Maryland State Bar Association (in 1995).

For the ABA and state and local bars working on diversity initiatives, an often frustrating, yet necessary virtue, leaders say, is patience. “Diversity efforts take a long time to come to fruition,” Hodge says.

To steer clear of frustration and complacency, bar leaders say that it is important to continue making diversity a high-profile issue. As ABA president and president-elect, Archer and Grey barnstormed the country, appearing at various state and local bars and civic organizations, touting the value and necessity of diversity. This is a task that each man continues to embrace today—even as the profession becomes more diverse.

“It’s important to talk about the successes we’re having,” says Grey, a partner in the Richmond, Virginia, office of Hunton & Williams. “We’ll continue to talk about this because of the evolving future of our society.”

Beyond the Bar Association

Indeed, one of the worries of Grey, Archer, and others is that despite the diversity gains in leadership among local, state, and national bars, the percentage of lawyers of color is still far below the overall minority percentage of the U.S. population. Although the current total U.S. population is about 30 percent minority, people of color make up about 10 percent of the total number of lawyers, according to Archer.

“There’s been a lot of progress, but we’re still underrepresented,” says Archer, chairman of the 220-member, Detroit-based law firm of Dickinson Wright. “At the end of the day, we still need to embrace diversity.”

It is an issue not lost on the ABA and state and local bars across the country. Last August, the ABA Presidential Advisory Council on Diversity in the Profession issued a report advocating stronger, more cooperative efforts by bar associations, law schools, and law firms to improve the pipeline of minorities into the profession.

“The minority representation in the United States population continues to grow,” the report states. “The disparity between the minority representation in the legal profession and the minority representation in the United States population is considerable, and that gap continues to grow.”

While more women and women of color are entering law schools, Hodge adds, “the most troubling number is that there are a number of law schools that don’t have a single male of color. We need to address the issue of education.”

Within the ABA itself, the Goal IX report on race and ethnicity notes that during the last five years, only Asian Pacific American members show increasing numbers (up 5.4 percent in 2006, compared to 2002). The number of members identifying themselves as African Americans declined 1.3 percent over the period, while whites declined the most: 6 percent. The number of members declining to identify their race or ethnicity altogether jumped 5.7 percent. (Overall membership climbed 1.5 percent.)

The Goal IX Report Card from the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession also points out areas of concern, particular-ly in bar leadership. While women comprise 31.5 percent of the total ABA membership—a number that continues to grow—the number of women in ABA leadership positions has stagnated. Only three of the last 17 ABA presidents have been women, while three of the last nine chairs of the House of Delegates were women. Also during the same time period, there have been no women treasurers.

Although such comprehensive statistics on various leadership positions at all state and local bars aren’t readily available, many current and former leaders of those bars say more must be done to move women and people of color into those positions. That is what makes programs such as diversity summits, leadership institutes, and mentoring critical to improving those statistics, they say.

Cooperative Efforts

Another important source of leadership diversity that many bars are just beginning to mine is the cooperative effort among all levels of bar associations, law firms, law schools, undergraduate colleges, and secondary schools.

“Lawyers of color have a lot of other options when it comes to what to do with their limited time—and that includes their ethnic bars,” says Hodge, a partner in the Boston office of Stoneman, Chandler & Miller. “We’re seeing more and more partnerships [with ethnic bars]. It’s clearly something that’s a major piece of state and local bar outreach.”

Shortly after becoming president-elect of the Alabama State Bar in 2001, Fred Gray sent letters to specialty and minority bars statewide, asking them to get more involved in state bar committees and activities. One result: The bar expanded its Board of Commissioners from 60 to 72 members to help create better ethnic and gender equity.

“There’s recognition among minority bars that there is an opportunity to be had here,” Wayne Lee said in 2003 as he prepared to become the first person of color to head the Louisiana State Bar Association. “In our programming, there’s been a real emphasis on sharing programs and information on ways of going about being more diverse.”

Archer says some of the places bars should look for inspiration are corporations and the medium and large law firms that have successfully implemented diversity initiatives. They have seen not only a social benefit from their diversity efforts, but a financial one as well.

“The legal profession is catching up to what corporations are doing with vendors of color,” he says. “By 2010, 70 percent of new hires will be women and men of color. The dynamics are going to change. There’s a big case to be made for diversity, and those who do not see are lost.”

Hodge hopes that women and men of color will see increasing opportunities for bar leadership for many of those same economic reasons. “Many lawyers want to be rainmakers, and your ability to be a rainmaker will depend in part on name recognition,” she says. “I think lawyers of color have seen that joining the bar and being a leader at the bar is a way to get recognized.”

Hodge is optimistic. Like Archer and Grey, she can recall going to bar meetings and events two decades ago and seeing very few women or men of color. A recent trip to visit bar presidents at an ABA Bar Leadership Institute meeting confirmed that times are changing.

“It is astonishing to me how much more diverse the room is now,” she says. “You’ve got to give everyone an opportunity. That’s what real diversity is all about.”

Copyright 2007

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