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Vol. 30, No. 2

Achieving diversity among bar staff requires persistence and ingenuity

by Wendy J. Smith

“Members of bar associations expect their staff to look like them.” That’s according to Cynthia Hall, answering the question, “Why diversify?” at a panel discussion on the subject at NABE’s Annual Meeting this August. Potential employees have similar expectations, added Hill, who is assistant executive director for programs at the District of Columbia Bar. Many have grown up in integrated neighborhoods, attended schools with different kinds of students, and expect diversity in their workplaces as a matter of course, she said.

Bar associations of all sizes have launched campaigns to achieve broader racial and general representation among their lawyer members (see sidebar). But the Annual Meeting panel discussion was the first time that a NABE program focused on recruitment, retention, and promotion of multicultural staff.

Moderator John Williamson, associate executive director of the New York State Bar Association, cited the results of a 2003 survey of nearly 80 bar associations as one reason for taking a hard look at staff development. Three sets of responses were especially telling, he said. Nearly 44% employed one to five persons of color at the management or professional level, and 49% had persons of color as support staff. When asked whether the percentage of diverse staff had gone up, down, or stayed the same, 58% reported that the figure remained constant or decreased. Only 6% had adopted staff diversity as a goal in their strategic plans.

Diversity will not happen overnight, the panel agreed. The process requires constant work and poses some unique problems. Loretta Larsen, executive director of the Louisiana State Bar Association, was the first woman professional hired by the bar 18 years ago. As the result of a concerted effort to establish a multicultural mix, the LSBA staff is now 40% African-American.

D.C.’s Hill and Paul Carlin, executive director of the Maryland State Bar Association, said that they have access to a rich pool of diverse talent due to the demographics of their areas. But some bar associations may have to scramble to find the right candidate. Other recruitment tools are widely available, including local chapters of the National Panhellenic Council (the governing body of traditionally African-American sororities and fraternities), minority bar associations, neighborhood newspapers targeted to a particular community, or the Internet. The Black Collegian online ( describes itself as “the career site for students of color.”

Once you have identified a potential candidate, getting him or her to accept a job offer may require what Hill called a “hard sell.” She said that “minorities rarely think of association work” as a career path. In dealing with both professional and administrative applicants, Hill emphasizes the factors that attracted her to the D.C. Bar in the first place: an opportunity to use all of her talents, congenial colleagues, good benefits, and a family-friendly environment. For lawyers with children, the potential for flexible schedules may be especially appealing. Promoting from within is critical, she added. Three of her support staff members have moved up the ladder to management positions.

Recruitment and hiring are only half of the battle. “Employees need to feel connected,” according to Maryland’s Carlin, who stressed the importance of creating an atmosphere of trust and fairness. To diffuse the evitable cliques, Carlin has instituted several practices, including crab feasts, events with spouses and significant others, and group excursions. His most recent venture is staff participation in the Mega Lottery, valued at $134 million at the time of the meeting. If the Maryland staff strikes it rich, he said in response to a question, they will “share equally” in the winnings.

Some of the potential pitfalls in dealing with a diverse staff are not immediately obvious, according to Louisiana’s Larson, who admits that she learned “by messing up.” What started out as a Christmas party was transformed into a holiday party as she added more people who do not celebrate Christmas to her staff. When she hired someone whose religious beliefs prohibit the celebration of holidays, the event “morphed into a staff appreciation lunch,” now held at the beginning of December.

Colleen McManus, senior director of human resources for the State Bar of Arizona, said that one of her bar’s most successful events has been the institution of a “staff appreciation week” at the end of each April. The highlight of the week is a Diversity Lunch. SBA has the event catered with a wide variety of cuisines, but staff members also bring food from their own backgrounds to share with their colleagues. She reported an enthusiastic response from staff members who had developed a rather jaundiced view of formal diversity training.

Other obstacles may be more subtle, said Hill, who cautioned participants to “look at your dress codes” and make sure that your requirements have a “solid business purpose.” Prohibitions against beards, for example, discriminate against some religious groups and African-Americans who suffer from a skin condition that is exacerbated by shaving.

Finally, symbols are important, Hill added, flashing a copy of Washington Lawyer that featured an African-American lawyer well known in the black community and his equally prominent lawyer wife. The couple was chosen to illustrate an article on “lawyers on sabbatical” but their photograph conveys a powerful and favorable message about the D.C. Bar.

Member and staff diversity programs

Of necessity, programs to increase staff diversity are interwoven with similar membership activities. “You can’t have one without the other,” said Cynthia Hill of the D.C. Bar. But membership programs offer some unique challenges of their own, including the following:

The need for a permanent mechanism. “Diversity needs to be institutionalized,” warned Loretta Larsen of the Louisiana State Bar Association, so that it is not regarded as the initiative of a particular president. At the recommendation of a task force on diversity, LSBA set up a permanent standing committee on diversity. New York also created a permanent committee and added 12 appointive seats to its house of delegates for traditionally underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.

Training. Training is critical if underrepresented groups are to move up to leadership positions. The Maryland State Bar Association offers a 12-month program for a group of fellows who are nominated by their peers. In addition to mandatory monthly programs on the basics of association management, public speaking, how to conduct a meeting, and negotiation skills, each class of fellows is required to plan, budget, and implement a community service project.

Data. Membership surveys are important to establish a baseline of racial and gender composition, but getting reliable information may be difficult at best. Despite empirical evidence to the contrary, some minority lawyers believe that they are disproportionately targeted by state disciplinary boards. Nevertheless, the perception is very real, said Arizona’s McManus. Nearly 80% of her members refuse to answer questions on the ABA census about their ethnic backgrounds.

Even when the bar association has no disciplinary role, the panel strongly recommended that surveys be completed on an anonymous and voluntary basis. Louisiana used census data and information from area law schools to corroborate the results of its survey. The situation is slightly different for the D.C. Bar, which has mandatory membership. Hill reported that a judge “recommended” that the bar collect information about the racial composition of its members. With a suggestion that was tantamount to a mandate, the bar starting sending out the survey with its dues billing. The response is fairly high, says Hills, but the process “took years.”