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Vol. 32, No. 5

One, two, three: When it comes to diverse bar leaders, milestones still matter

by Michelle A. Behnke

In recent years, state and local bars have been seeing more diversity in leadership. However, the demographics of the profession are still such that we take notice of certain milestones, such as the one that will be achieved in New York, New Jersey, and Maryland this year. In each of these states, the current state bar president, a woman, will hand over the gavel to the incoming president, also a woman. Why take notice of this milestone? Isn’t the goal of equality that such “events” are “nonevents”?

As with issues of racial equality, there is always a risk that noting milestones such as this will somehow overshadow the other attributes of the persons crossing the threshold. That said, even though great strides have been made, in some places, there still has never been a diverse bar leader in terms of gender or race. To ignore “firsts,” transfers from one diverse president to another, and other such events would seem inappropriate, given the barriers that are often faced by those crossing such a threshold.

At the Midyear Meeting in Los Angeles this February, one of the programs for the National Conference of Bar Presidents focused on how bar associations could encourage and foster diversity. While many good ideas were presented, one point that really caught my attention was how the focus on diversity and inclusion, which is often aimed at women and people of color, must also apply to white men.

For example, the District of Columbia Bar is having a hard time getting white men into positions of leadership. The association has had a long-standing goal of inclusion and works to ensure that all aspects of the bar are reflective of the membership and demonstrate the commitment to ensuring that the association is open to all. The association’s recognition that a particular group, white men, was not being included in a representative way is yet another interesting threshold.

So what is the difference made in crossing these types of thresholds? Perhaps it’s simply that members will see that the organization is open to a wider variety of practitioners. Maybe members will see that all voices are needed and valued in bar leadership. Perhaps it will encourage a more diverse student population to consider law as a profession.

The demographics are changing. Women often make up 50 percent or more of entering law school classes. Women have also been in the profession long enough that they are, as a natural progression, moving into leadership in greater numbers. These changes will likely continue over the next 10 or 20 years. This profession needs to be ready to serve a diverse population, and the composition of the profession and its leadership needs to reflect the changing demographics.

In many ways, the year for the outgoing presidents of New York, New Jersey, and Maryland were typical bar years. Each leader accomplished many things and faced some unexpected challenges. Each asked the members to assist with the work of the bar, and the members willingly stepped forward to serve their profession. The bar staff of each association shared its collective expertise and experience to move the organization forward.

Still, in some ways, this year and next year for these organizations will be different. The fact that the lawyers of these states selected women for successive terms sends a powerful message to their respective membership: You are welcome, and your opinions and thoughts are valued and need to be added to the collective work of the legal profession. We can’t forget the often motivating effect that crossing a threshold can have. Allowing others to see the possibilities and the inclusiveness of the association will only lead to greater member support and involvement. What could be better?

In this issue, you’ll have a chance to learn more about some of the challenges that women still face in the profession, some successes in overcoming those obstacles and also in achieving leadership positions, and what some bar associations are doing to help pave the way.