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Vol. 43, No. 5

Energy, commitment, and connection: Doing the work of diversity and inclusion

by Marilyn Cavicchia

Patricia Jarzobski has a story of diversity and inclusion—and of how a personal invitation (and persistence) can help a member overcome their hesitance to step up to leadership.

Based on her work as president of the Colorado Women’s Bar Association, she was approached by some women who wanted to nominate her for president of the Colorado Bar Association (of which she was a member but not terribly involved).

She said no.

“I was interested,” she recalls, “but I had self-doubt, and I had fear.” As a matter of fact, when she left on a trip, she hoped her would-be nominators would forget while she was away. They didn’t—and they pushed her, leading to the following exchange, as Jarzobski recounts it:

“I said, ‘The CBA is not interested in me.’ They said, ‘Yes, they are.’
“I said, ‘The CBA would never pick me.’ They said, ‘Yes, they would.’
“I said, ‘I don’t know the CBA like I know the women’s bar.’” They said, ‘You can learn it.’
“I said, ‘I don’t have the same relationships in the CBA.’ They said, ‘You can build them.’
“I said, ‘I’m not in my comfort zone.’ They said, ‘You can take the risk.’
“Then I lost my mind and said, ‘And what if I’m the worst CBA president ever?’—and at that point, they just said, ‘Snap out of it.’”

She did snap out of it—after realizing that if she weren’t afraid, she would say yes to the nomination—ultimately serving as president of the CBA in 2016-2017.

“We need more women and diverse attorneys in leadership positions making the important decisions in our bar associations,” Jarzobski believes. “When we are at the table, it makes a difference in the decisions that get made.”

Jarbozski is now invested in bringing others to that table, using the same persuasiveness and personal touch that helped her overcome her own fears: In fact, she is chair of the new joint Diversity and Inclusivity Steering Committee between the CBA and the Denver Bar Association. A diversity and inclusion action plan is now taking shape in Colorado, and a big part of it is the ACT (Appointing Critical Talent) Now Initiative, in which the CBA connects with minority and special-focus bars to encourage their leaders to apply for presidential appointments—whether they’re CBA members or not.

Diversity and inclusion, Jarbozski and others say, takes persistence, innovation, and a deep commitment. Sometimes, they say, the work is sparked by one leader’s passion—but in order to be sustained, it can’t end there. How are some bars working to ensure that diversity and inclusion are always a priority, regardless of the frequent leadership transitions that are typical of the bar world?

‘Make sure to talk to everybody’

In everyday life and in his bar leadership roles, which have included terms as co-chair of the ABA Young Lawyers Division and president of the Multnomah (Ore.) Bar Association, Andrew Schpak has long recognized the power of personal invitation—and commitment.

“I never want to see somebody who signs up and gets involved and just doesn’t feel like they ever got tapped on the shoulder the way they see other people getting tapped on the shoulder,” he says. “So, I’ve really tried to be deliberate about making sure to talk to everybody I come in contact with.”

Being an inclusive leader, he believes, requires a conscious choice to connect with first-timers at bar events and those who might feel a bit out of place—and asking them about any leadership goals they may have.

That same proactive approach led Schpak—a white man who does not meet any of the usual diversity criteria—to champion diversity and inclusion while he was president of the Multnomah bar. One way he did that, he recalls, was by forging deeper connections with affinity bars. In fact, the bar developed a free trial membership for affinity bar members so they could come in and see what the MBA had to offer them.

To other presidents of mainstream bars who want to focus on diversity and inclusion, Schpak advises being similarly willing to reach out personally—and also to avoid a common pitfall.

“One thing I feel very strongly about,” he says, “is making sure that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking of diverse individuals only for diversity positions.” Instead, he advises, look for diverse lawyers who can use their talents in roles that do not specifically pertain to diversity and inclusion.

As immediate past president, Schpak remains a visible, involved advocate for diversity and inclusion at the MBA, and he has been pleased to see the momentum continue. One initiative that has continued after his term is to host a meeting for presidents and presidents-elect from the Oregon State Bar, Multnomah bar and all the affinity bars. The purpose, Schpak says, is to share what each organization is working on, and perhaps spark ideas for new collaborations and partnerships. Schpak notes that this year, a similar roundtable had already been planned, so the Multnomah bar hosted a reception immediately before that event.

Another bar leader who does not fit within any of the usual diversity categories but who made diversity and inclusion a focus during his presidential term is Doug Farnsley, who was president of the Kentucky Bar Association in 2015-2016.

"I did not think so much about the fact that I was a white male ... [M]y main motivation was basic fairness," he recalls. "I was elected to be the president of the Kentucky Bar Association, and I thought it was important that I seek to make all of our 18,000 members know that they are respected and valued."

Farnsley made sure that this feeling of welcome also extended to lawyers who were diverse for reasons other than race or ethnicity. For example, he supported the formation of the KBA's LGBT Law Section. For one of his president's pages, he interviewed three lawyers who were Muslim, and in another, he profiled a trial lawyer who was transgender.

"The point of these columns," he explains, "was to introduce our membership to wonderful people who are accomplished lawyers but who are also subject to grotesquely unfair stereotypes."

A culture of welcome

At the Tenth Judicial District Bar (mandatory) and Wake County Bar Association (voluntary) in North Carolina, the emphasis is on making sure that the bars are a welcoming place for all members. This commitment is written into the strategic plan for both bars, and it is carried forward in ways both big and small—and personal.

How personal? As part of their meetings, board members write welcome notes to all new members, says Whitney von Haam, executive director. New members wear a different color nametag at luncheons, and (similar to Schpak) board members and other luncheon attendees are asked to reach out to new members rather than just interacting with people they already know.

The bars have also aligned with several “influencers” in the legal community, von Haam notes—prominent social media users who are leaders in the Wake County/Tenth bars and in women’s bars, minority bars, and other special-focus organizations in the area.

“These cheerleaders for our bar help get the word out in a way that we cannot communicate,” von Haam says, by adding a personal connection as they share information about events and opportunities and why others should participate.

As a more formalized way of reaching out, the WCBA’s Leadership Development Committee focuses on actively engaging diverse members and identifying diverse candidates for leadership positions in both bars. It has also looked into which other bar committees could most benefit from diverse perspectives and recruited diverse lawyers to join those committees in particular, von Haam says. The committees that have been the focus of these pipeline efforts include those that address nominations, social activities, swearing-in, and CLE, she adds.

Echoing what some panelists at the 2019 ABA Bar Leadership Institute said about diversity and inclusion among younger people, von Haam notes that the WCBA’s Young Lawyers Division is naturally more diverse than the bars as a whole—so, it is a useful resource in making the bars more welcoming and inclusive overall. To make sure that young lawyers connect with the “big bar” as well as with the YLD, the WCBA has tweaked its committee structure to build in connections between YLD committees and bar committees that relate to the same topic.

The intensive work of building a more welcoming culture has taken place over about four years thus far, von Haam notes, and has already made noticeable differences.

“Whether it is our early morning CLEs, our socials or even our highly traditional luncheons, the faces you see coming in the door are much more reflective of the bar that we are becoming,” von Haam says, “one with young and old faces, varieties of practice areas, as well as cultures, ethnicities, and differing abilities.”

Differing roles for state and local bars?

For a number of reasons, including the demographics of the state outside of the Twin Cities, the Minnesota State Bar Association focuses on diversity and inclusion within the bar association itself rather than in the profession—an approach outlined in its 2017-2020 Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plan.

“None of us have the perfect solution,” explains Athena Hollins, director of diversity at the MSBA. “We know there’s a pipeline issue, but we also know there’s a retention issue, there’s a promotion issue—it’s not just one thing that we can touch on and fix.” The complexities of these issues have led the bar to think of itself almost as a lab or incubator, developing strategies and resources that help build its internal diversity and inclusion and that can then be adopted or adapted by law firms.

The strategic plan calls for a diversity and inclusion conference to be held every other year; the first of these was on April 1, 2019, highlighting well-being and resilience among diverse lawyers, who Hollins says may be extra prone to stress from microaggressions and other challenges in law firm culture. The conference was planned by the bar’s Diversity & Inclusion Leadership Council, who then reached out to affinity bars within the state to recruit speakers.

The strategic plan also calls for each MSBA section and committee to develop its own diversity and inclusion plan. Hollins, who created sample plans for all MSBA entities, says this process is moving more slowly than she thought it would. Most leaders and liaisons for sections and committees have gone beyond simply accepting the sample plans, instead working more intensively and seeking approval from their entire entity—and, she says, coming up with some innovative ideas as a result.

Meanwhile, the Hennepin County Bar Association takes a different approach, according to Dana Miner, director of legal services. The HCBA is deeply invested in pipeline efforts, with its Diversity and Inclusion Committee focused on everything from literacy at a local preschool to mentoring in local high schools and a minority clerkship program for law students.

The committee meetings also offer a chance to have sometimes tricky conversations, Miner says, based on an article that is selected and shared at each meeting.

“We all talk about it together at the table—and that’s actually a very difficult thing to do,” Miner notes, explaining that even in such a comfortable setting, there can be uncomfortable moments in discussing race and ethnicity.

Hollins and Miner work closely together and, in fact, because of the shared staffing arrangement that is still taking shape among the MSBA, the HCBA, and the Ramsey County Bar Association, Hollins will assume more direct responsibility over the two metro bars' diversity and inclusion efforts. Details are still being firmed up, but for now, Hollins and Miner say it may make sense to maintain the approach where the state bar models internal diversity and inclusion while the metro bars work more directly within their legal community and their community in general.

Building a bar-wide movement

The Kansas City (Mo.) Metropolitan Bar Association is an example of an organization where a leader’s personal commitment to diversity and inclusion grew and became formalized in many ways over the years.

The current mayor of Kansas City, Sylvester “Sly” James Jr., was president of the KCMBA in 2003. As president, James, the first African-American partner in his firm’s history, brought together leaders from other firms to form the Managing Partners Committee of the KCMBA, which developed a diversity action plan. This plan set forth specific objectives designed to increase the number of diverse attorneys employed by the participating firms—and it led to real change, according to KCMBA Executive Director Vickie Mauck.

“Across the board, there were gains in the number of attorneys of color, women attorneys, openly gay and lesbian attorneys, disabled attorneys and other diverse attorneys practicing at the participating firms,” Mauck says. Among the objectives that were successful and that continue today, Mauck cites the Heartland Diversity Legal Job Fair, which helps diverse law students and young lawyers connect with opportunities to start their career in Kansas City.

Over the years, Mauck adds, most of the firms that were part of the Managing Partners Committee have also created their own internal mechanisms, including standing diversity committees, diversity hiring initiatives, and mentoring programs to encourage retention and promotion of diverse lawyers.

As for developments within the bar, in 2005, the bar’s Strategic Vision Committee was given the task of incorporating diversity and inclusion into the KCMBA’s purpose statement, as a way to formalize the bar’s commitment. In 2011, the bar formed the Diversity Section, with four committees: Education, Heartland Diversity Legal Job Fair, Recruitment and Retention, and Membership and Social. The president of the section has a voting position on the KCMBA Board of Directors, Mauck notes.

“KCMBA’s commitment to diversity and inclusion has helped it be not only a welcoming home for all in our legal community,” says President Nate Orr. “It has enhanced the organization’s ability to innovate and think of new ways the organization can provide value and service to all members.”

Agrees Mayor James, “The Kansas City legal community will realize its fullest potential only when the talents of all who practice law or aspire to a legal career, regardless of background, are welcomed.”

Thinking beyond the one-year term

In addition to what was mentioned earlier, Farnsley notes that in recent years, the Kentucky Bar Association and Kentucky Bar Foundation have made several other significant steps forward in diversity and inclusion. For example, all KBA committees are now much more diverse than they once were, and the bar has held three Diversity and Inclusion Summits and pipeline programs (in 2015, 2017, and 2019). The KBF now has a diversity fund, with a revenue stream that adds approximately $20,000 to that fund each year.

That's the kind of work that far exceeds what can be accomplished in just one year, so Farnsley made sure to think beyond that short time frame. In his first executive committee meeting as vice president, he recalls, he asked about advancing diversity and inclusion and received the go-ahead to move forward.

That led to the formation of a diversity working group, co-chaired by Farnsley and Carl Frazier, who was chair of the bar's Young Lawyer's Division. Other stakeholders included the deans of the state's law schools, the chair of the bar's Diversity in the Profession Committee, a representative of the state Supreme Court, a representative of the Department of Public Advocacy, and presidents of the African American bar organizations in Lexington and Louisville.

The group met once a month, on the same day as executive committee meetings, notes Farnsley, adding that executive committee members were invited to attend and participate. This continued for three years, he says, while he was vice president, president-elect, and then president.

As proud as he is of the bar's efforts before, during, and after his presidential term, Farnsley says no bar leader should ever think of diversity and inclusion as something that has been achieved and needs no further work.

"[W]hat are we going to do now? The progress we made was real," he says, "but if we are going to continue to make progress, our leaders need to lead and to act on what we all know needs to be done."

(Note: As with all Bar Leader articles, this is meant only as a snapshot of what some bars are doing in the area of diversity and inclusion. For more information from these and other bars, please visit the ABA Division for Bar Services Diversity & Inclusion Resource Page. Also, please see "Exiting the echo chamber: The president's role in diversity and inclusion," in this issue.)