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Vol. 35, No. 2

Diversity Directors Convene in California

by Kimberly Vann

Within local, state, and national bar associations, staff members play a vital role in achieving diversity goals and implementing initiatives to address various constituencies. Whether these professionals focus exclusively on diversity or perform such tasks along with other responsibilities, their institutional memory and targeted expertise are invaluable. However, these staffers rarely have an opportunity to identify challenges and share experiences with their peers in a “safe” setting, where honest dialogue can occur.

Last April, the State Bar of California provided that setting as it sponsored its first Diversity Staff Directors Forum. Co-sponsored by the ABA Center for Racial and Ethnic Diversity, the conference featured a day and a half of plenary and interactive breakout sessions where diversity professionals shared information about projects, discussed problems and solutions, and collaborated on action plans. More than 40 bar association staff attended, including executive directors, diversity directors, and staff with diversity-related assignments in addition to responsibility for other projects.

Forum organizers Patricia Lee, special assistant to the executive director for diversity and bar relations at the State Bar of California, and Cie Armstead, director of the ABA Center for Racial and Ethnic Diversity, shared their thoughts on why the forum was created and why diversity professionals must clearly articulate the case for diversity.

The idea for the forum first came up when Lee and Judy Johnson, then executive director of the State Bar of California, attended an ABA diversity summit in National Harbor, Md.

“We said to one another, ‘At these kinds of meetings, we rarely get to hear input from staff who are doing the work at the ground level and have some really good insights about diversity initiatives and strategies,’ ” Lee recalls.

Lee, who is also director of the California bar’s Center for Access and Fairness, then suggested locating funds to host a national conference for bar association diversity staff. Remaining funds from a State Bar of California Bar Foundation grant were made available. Next, Lee contacted Armstead to discuss the idea and later invited staff from the ABA Division for Bar Services and the National Association of Bar Executives Diversity Development Committee to participate in the forum’s planning stages. 

“When Pat first approached me I thought it was a great idea, particularly because it was an immediate action item, coming out of a yearlong study that we had conducted as part of the ABA’s presidential initiative. We were excited to go beyond just talking about something and actually implement it,” Armstead says. “It made wonderful sense to bring together the people that are on the front lines with diversity in bar associations. It was an easy collaboration for us that fulfilled a number of our strategic objectives.”

The case for diversity

One of the topics the forum addressed was the importance of diversity professionals successfully articulating the case for diversity. Lee believes it’s critical that all staff directors and individuals involved in promoting diversity in the profession know how to adeptly change the message and tweak it, depending on the audience. “You have to be clear in terms of the rationale and the justification for pursuing the goals of diversity in the profession, in the judiciary, and the entire pipeline, in order to bring people on board and help them understand why it’s so important,” she explains.

Adds Armstead, “It’s crucial for those who deal in this arena to continuously stay aware of why diversity is important and be able to communicate with different stakeholders, particularly if they are in an environment where there are vocal naysayers.

“It’s not enough to just say it’s the right thing to do; we have to explain in a qualitative nature why it matters and, when appropriate, add some numbers, some metrics that show why it’s important.”

What bars are doing now

Representatives presented model programs and initiatives from national, state, and local bar associations. The Bar Association of San Francisco offers a range of pipeline efforts, including “Destination Law School,” a program that seeks to increase diversity among college graduates enrolling in law school by providing information and resources that help simplify the law school preparation and application process.

“Empowering, Enriching, and Encouraging Native American Youth,” a public service project initiated by the State Bar of Montana’s New Lawyer Section, educates high school students within Montana’s eight Native American tribes about the tribal, state, and federal court system as well as about their rights as citizens of their tribe, state, and country.

Christopher Manos, the Montana State Bar’s executive director, also reported that the bar’s president and immediate past president chair a diversity working group to address issues as they relate to bar members in Montana, especially American Indians, and also potential members and students, in an effort to stimulate interest in the legal profession.

The Managing Partners Committee of the Kansas City (Mo.) Metropolitan Bar Association has embarked upon a five-year diversity initiative that concentrates on retaining diverse attorneys in member firms, enhancing recruitment of diverse legal talent, and educating employees and partners in participating firms about diversity efforts as well as the goals of the committee’s action plan.

The Louisiana State Bar Association issues a diversity report card highlighting programs successfully initiated and implemented by the association’s diversity committee, including outreach to the judiciary, law students, and specialty bar associations; diversity conclaves; and communications efforts.

Challenges to increasing diversity

According to the forum attendees, some of the challenges to enhancing diversity include resistance to change, personal biases, duplication of efforts, competing resources, and funding. Kelly Legier, the LSBA’s director of member outreach and diversity, says she has encountered rigid attitudes among more seasoned, nonminority attorneys who do not understand why diversity is important to the profession and to them personally. 

“I have received pushback regarding programs and initiatives, especially in more rural areas of the state where demographic diversity is lacking,” she explains. “I have received e-mails questioning why we are spending money on diversity efforts since there have been black presidents of the bar association.” 

Legier, who chairs the NABE Diversity Development Committee, and her colleagues use these occurrences as teachable moments. “We respond patiently to the e-mails and letters to attempt to impart understanding and enlightenment on the scope of diversity and the importance of diversity and inclusion,” she says.

Manos says he strives to keep bar members interested in diversity, as many of them think that with gender issues and minority issues being addressed, the problem has been solved. “Constant awareness is necessary,” he believes.

Next steps

After talking about the challenges, attendees then identified specific action items that were incorporated within an action plan. These items included: creating a centralized clearinghouse for information; increasing collaboration and reducing redundancy; developing diversity metrics; and creating a diversity and inclusion strategic plan.

Frank Garcia, diversity administrator at the Oregon State Bar, strives hard to get people to understand that workplace diversity is an actual discipline based in human resources and that there are many examples throughout multiple workplace settings that translate to the legal profession. “These examples should be researched and analyzed as we move forward in developing effective and sustainable strategies that will advance diversity and inclusion in the legal profession,” he recommends.

One of the forum’s highlights was the distribution of Diversity in the Legal Profession: The Next Steps, a 2010 report issued by the ABA Presidential Initiative Commission on Diversity. Based on a yearlong assessment and information-gathering process initiated by 2008-09 ABA President H. Thomas Wells Jr., the publication outlines recommendations on how to increase diversity in law firms and corporations, the judiciary and government, law schools, and bar associations.

Forum participants were added to a diversity staff directors’ Listserv created by the . This Listserv is a key part of a broader network that encourages interaction and information sharing among attendees. (For more information on how to join the Listserv or to receive the Next Steps report, please e-mail Cie Armstead at [email protected].)

A final report is being drafted that summarizes discussion from the April conference and an August follow-up meeting; the report will consolidate ideas and answer questions by bar association staff professionals as they support members in reaching their diversity goals. “I think when we issue that report, it should be really helpful in providing guidance and direction as they conduct their ongoing projects,” Lee notes. Also in development, Armstead adds, is a preliminary listing of staff at state and local bar associations whose work focuses on diversity initiatives.

Legier says she is examining the ABA resources for diversity and inclusion program ideas, especially those concerning pipeline initiatives. She also intends to vet ideas on the diversity Listserv.

The benefit of being there

Attendees at the first-ever forum said it was a great sharing and networking opportunity. 

“I learned about programs and initiatives that are working in other bar associations and gained valuable resources that I could bring home,” Legier says.

Adds Manos, “It was extremely helpful to make the contacts with other bars and coordinators, and discover similar problems and similar ideas on approaches.”

The forum “facilitated the opportunity for diversity practitioners at the bar association level to come together to share and learn from one another,” Garcia says. “As a collective, I think we’ve created a bit of a cognitive map because we’ve been able to start to identify and inventory our professional colleagues across the country and begin to associate.”