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Vol. 40, No. 3

Diversity and inclusion: Challenges and opportunities for mainstream bar associations

by Sandra S. Yamate

When it comes to diversity and inclusion, bar associations of all sizes share three common concerns:

  1. How do we increase our diverse membership (if we are a voluntary bar)?
  2. How can we offer better diversity programs?
  3. How do we engage and involve more of the diverse lawyers in our area in our work?

The reasoning for this is simple and straightforward. A more diverse and inclusive membership translates into more membership dues. It increases the opportunities for more nondues revenue, including grants and sponsorships. And it opens the door to new and different collaborative and cooperative opportunities, expanding the reach and impact of a bar association’s work.

But the simplicity of the issue masks a perplexing challenge for almost all state and local—mainstream—bar associations, one that is decidedly different from those of large law firms struggling to recruit, retain and promote diverse lawyers to partnership; or minority- or women-owned law firms hoping to be given the opportunity to demonstrate their abilities and expertise to corporate clients; or law schools seeking to open the pipeline to larger numbers of diverse law students—the areas in which the legal profession has tended to focus most of its diversity and inclusion attentions. Bar associations, as autonomous organizations, return time and again to their own unique diversity and inclusion challenges—challenges which often aren’t addressed in any coherent fashion by the profession.

1. How do we recruit more diverse members?

Members are the lifeblood of any bar association: The more members your organization has, the better. But for many mainstream bar associations, the recruitment of diverse members—particularly members who are racial/ethnic minorities, openly LGBT, have disabilities, or practice non-Judeo-Christian religions, etc.—is a persistent challenge. That challenge frequently falls into one of three categories (note that mandatory bars, too, often struggle in these same areas):

  • There’s little or no diversity—in this case, “diversity” generally refers to racial/ethnic diversity—in our community. If the geographic area served by your bar has little or no racial/ethnic diversity, there are still plenty of things your organization can do to lay the foundation to allow diversity efforts to take root and grow in your community. For example, you could establish internships, fellowships and other resume-building opportunities for diverse law students and young lawyers that would bring them to your community. Another idea is to develop collaborative programmatic opportunities with minority and other specialty bar associations to expose their members to the advantages of practicing law in your community.

  • The specialty (mostly minority) bar associations in our area are very active. Too often, mainstream bar associations become so used to following a tried-and-true approach to their programmatic efforts that when that approach fails, they are at a loss as to what to do. If your area has active and robust minority and other specialty bar associations, consider what other things you might do to prove relevant to the diverse lawyers you seek to recruit, rather than trying to duplicate or replicate  (often less successfully) programs and projects that the minority or specialty bars are already doing perfectly well. Mainstream bars shouldn’t try to make their diversity efforts serve as mini-minority bars. Find ways to set aside any notion that somehow you’ll absorb the minority bars in your area, and instead focus on how you can support these bars and work collaboratively with them.

  • There seems to be a lack of interest in our bar association among the diverse lawyers in our community, so that membership is not a priority. The diverse lawyers you seek to recruit are simply lawyers who are diverse. Their interests and needs do not differ from those of any other lawyer. If diverse lawyers are not interested in joining and becoming involved in the work of your bar association, chances are that many lawyers, diverse and not, are not interested. If your bar association is located in a geographic area that has sizeable numbers of lawyers who are diverse and who choose not to join your bar association, you may want to examine how your bar serves the needs of lawyers generally, rather than just emphasizing the recruitment of diverse lawyers. What programs and content do you offer? How do you offer it? When? What programs and content are missing?

2. How do we engage the diverse members we have?

Here are two different avenues for bar associations—voluntary or mandatory—to explore in trying to solve this challenge:

  • Why don’t more of our diverse members join our committees and sections? Sometimes, it’s a question of competition among your own committees and sections for the same diverse members. Other times, it may be redundancy, either among your own committees and sections or duplication of projects and programs already being offered by local minority bars. And still other times, especially in larger bar associations, it‘s genuine confusion when there seems to be an internal duplication of effort, a lack of clarity as to divisions of labor, or the perpetuation of programs or activities that may no longer seem as meaningful or have the impact that they once did. And once diverse lawyers do explore involvement in your committees and sections, it becomes a question of how welcoming those groups are.

  • Why don’t our diverse members attend our events? Often, it is because they simply haven’t the time. Remember: Diverse lawyers are simply lawyers who are diverse. And, like all lawyers, they have a multitude of demands made upon their limited time. But for lawyers who are diverse, the demands upon their time are compounded by their very diversity. In addition to the demands that all lawyers face, lawyers who are diverse are often expected to make time to be the face of diversity for their firms, to serve on the boards of charitable organizations based within the minority community, to mentor younger diverse lawyers, and to undertake duties and responsibilities associated with their diversity that their non-diverse colleagues never face. Compounding this is that too often, mainstream bar association events show such a noticeable lack of diversity or are so geared toward a particular socioeconomic status or culture that diverse lawyers may feel uncomfortable or just uninterested in the events.

3. How do we get our diverse members to pursue leadership roles within our bar association?

The bar association career paths of diverse lawyers can be significantly different from other lawyers’. Rather than getting involved as young lawyers and being groomed and conditioned to see leadership within the bar as something worthy of ambition, they may, as young lawyers, become more active in minority bars where they can attain significant leadership roles much earlier than they would in a mainstream bar. Some will then transition into a mainstream bar, but many will not; among those who do, they have missed years of opportunity to build the relationships necessary to be groomed to become a future leader in the mainstream bar. They may not be aware of how to pursue such roles, may be viewed as not having “paid their dues,” or may see the opportunities for leadership roles as the right of an inner circle to which they do not feel they belong. Diverse lawyers are just as likely to be interested in leadership roles as any other lawyer; they may simply require encouragement and guidance on how to attain such roles.

Mainstream bar membership and participation can have tremendous benefits for diverse lawyers. And they, in turn, can add tremendous value to the mission and work of the mainstream bar. But mainstream bar associations need to appreciate that diverse lawyers have many outlets for their interest in bar and professional activities, from minority and other specialty bars at both the local and national levels to other mainstream bar associations. Therefore, it is incumbent upon you, as leaders in your respective organizations, to exercise your leadership in such a way as to guide your bar to embrace meaningful ways to achieve your diversity and inclusion goals.

Sandra S. Yamate

Sandra S. Yamate is the chief executive officer of the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession (IILP), a 501 (c)3 organization dedicated to achieving a diverse and inclusive legal profession. She has over two decades of experience advising and guiding state, local and specialty bars on their diversity and inclusion efforts.

Yamate presented on this topic at the 2015 Annual Meeting of the National Conference of Bar Presidents. For more information, see the handout, as well as “Different bars, different ways to work toward diversity and inclusion,” also in this issue.