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January 14, 2022 Vol. 47, No. 3

Doing the work: To increase diversity, equity and inclusion, bars dig deep, face truths, commit to action

By Robert J. Derocher


When George Floyd was killed by police in May 2020, touching off nationwide protests and riots, leaders of the Monroe County (N.Y.) Bar Association in Rochester knew that diversity, equity and inclusion challenges the bar already faced would be intensified. Racial tensions were simmering in a city where just two months earlier Daniel Prude, another Black man, died in police custody in an event classified as a homicide.

“Right after George Floyd, there was a lot of concern among Black attorneys in Rochester that the bar association had kind of traditionally said nice things but didn’t do too much—and we lost some [Black] members,” says MCBA Executive Director Kevin Ryan. “There were lukewarm [bar responses] that really angered people, because it tied it into experiences that Black attorneys had that white attorneys don’t have.”

But what soon followed was a series of events that has since sent the MCBA on a different path in addressing DEI issues: a public response condemning police in the George Floyd murder, establishment of the President’s Commission on Anti-Racism to address racial inequities, a Board of Trustees memo to board members, owning up to bar shortfalls—and a promise of concrete change.

“You have to say, ‘We’ve fallen short in some ways, and we want to redress those issues,’” Ryan says about the memo. “We have moved away from a policy where we’ve shied away from making statements on public issues to really stepping up and forward on some of these things. Some of these things raised fundamental questions of justice.”

The MCBA is hardly alone among bars taking new or expanded action, as events spotlighting inequities in legal institutions have unfolded throughout the country over the last year or two. For many, this is leading to direct actions to confront shortcomings in diversity, equity and inclusion in the law. Frank surveys, new task forces and commissions, updated organizational policies, and hiring of DEI-experienced staff are all part of the mix in addressing such issues.

For many bars, the responses represent some of their most concerted efforts ever to address not only short-term DEI issues, but also systemic challenges that have long plagued the profession. The hope, they say, is that a collaborative and sustained approach will lead to firmly embedding DEI into their organizational DNA, and, by extension, the entire legal community.

‘Is this a community that I can be part of?’

While MCBA leadership has been fairly diverse over the last several years, Ryan says it became clear that the bar needed to do more to address diversity in the profession in a city where fewer than 100 of the 3,000 lawyers were people of color—roughly 3 percent.

“An attorney of color comes into a firm and may very well be the only one in the firm. That has an effect on how they feel. They may think, ‘Is this a community that I can be a part of here?’” Ryan says. “We’ve got to figure out a way to get them here and keep them here.”

Helping firms attract and retain more diverse lawyers is one of the external goals of the Commission on Anti-Racism, with a focus on finding more diverse mentors, Ryan adds, while internally, the bar has intensified efforts to diversify CLE panels and committees and provided anti-racism training for board members.

Similar training and committee strategies have also been implemented over the last year at the Massachusetts Bar Association, where immediate past president Denise Murphy initiated temporary requirements—now permanent—for all bar staff and officers to receive DEI training.

“That is systemic change. Nothing like that has ever happened before,” she says. “If you don’t go through the training, you can’t be an officer.”

The bar now also requires all panels and presentations to have diverse elements and that each bar section council have a liaison from the bar’s Diversity Committee.

State judiciaries and bars evaluate DEI in the profession

The Massachusetts bar’s DEI efforts have intensified since the release of a report in early 2021 by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being, which provided many uncomfortable accounts from town hall meetings with more than 100 attorneys and law students from underrepresented, historically excluded, and systemically oppressed populations confronting discrimination throughout the Massachusetts legal system.

The report stated that these attorneys and students “must continue disproportionately to prove their worth to other legal professionals who assume that their work will be of lesser quality. They experience recurring identity-based challenges and discrimination, no matter how far in their career they have advanced.”

An example, according to Murphy, who also co-chairs the committee on well-being: a woman attorney of color who was asked to provide three forms of identification in addition to her bar registration card, when one form is generally the standard.

In the wake of the report, the MBA and the Supreme Judicial Court have developed a toolkit distributed to local bars statewide that emphasizes the importance of DEI as part of attorney well-being, according to Murphy.

“One of my pet peeves is all the people who talked about this stuff but didn’t do anything,” she adds. “Get involved. Get engaged. Learn about people.”

Similar work is under way in neighboring Rhode Island. In summer 2020, the Rhode Island Bar Association established the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, whose current chair is Judge Linda Rekas Sloan, a past bar president.  In 2021, the task force conducted a survey of the full bar membership to gather personal accounts of any experiences of discriminatory or biased behavior within the profession, evaluations of the bar's commitment to DEI, and suggestions to further and fulfill this commitment. Results of the survey were not shared externally by the bar because it was believed that this would compromise the honesty and candor of members' responses, RIBA President Lynda L. Laing said in a statement. 

The task force has since submitted a report to the bar's board, including recommendations, and this is now under review. The task force has also shared the survey results with the Rhode Island Judiciary Committee on Racial and Ethnic Fairness in the Courts, also established in 2020; at press time, plans were under way for the two groups to meet and collaborate. 

Frank, facilitated discussion helps keep DEI at the forefront

The actions-vs.-words discussion has been a common thread at many bars, particularly in the wake of the George Floyd killing and subsequent demonstrations. In Indiana, some lawyers of color expressed trepidation about public statements by the Indiana State Bar Association, believing them to be inadequate, says bar Executive Director Joe Skeel. That discussion, however, has developed into a series of initiatives that is moving the bar forward on improving DEI.

“We didn’t issue any statements [about these initiatives]. We didn’t come out and say, ‘We feel this way,’” Skeel says. “We just basically rolled up our sleeves, got people in a room and said, ‘What do we need to do to fix this and make this better?’”

On a long-term level, the bar assembled a diverse task force to make plans for improving DEI. At the same time, sensing a need for an immediate response, the bar developed Open Conversations, a series of facilitated Zoom events where Indiana lawyers share stories of racism, sexism, discrimination and bias. The monthly forum has served as an eye-opener regarding DEI shortcomings in the state—and potential avenues to address them, Skeel says. The series even won an award from ACLEA, the association for CLE professionals, for outstanding achievement in the public interest category.

Since its formation, the task force developed a multi-pronged plan to promote changes in police and prosecution strategies, civil legal aid, state legislative initiatives and pipeline/mentoring to improve diversity in the profession. To solidify its importance, Skeel says, bar leadership made the task force recommendations part of the bar’s long-term strategic plan.

“If we’re doing our jobs correctly, there will always be a diverse mix of volunteers and programs that will ensure DEI stays topical,” he says.

Effort under way to collect better, more consistent data

DEI goes far beyond counting, but accurate, consistent data provides a strong foundation for understanding how diverse a particular jurisdiction or legal community is—or isn’t. With that in mind, the ABA, which conducts an annual National Lawyer Population Survey, is encouraging mandatory bars and other licensing bodies to collect thorough, consistent demographic information that will help provide data that can be reliably compared from one jurisdiction to another and give a more accurate nationwide overview.

Conversations have also begun within the National Organization of Bar Counsel, whose  August 2021 Annual meeting included a webinar called “Using Data to Drive Forward Diversity, Equity & Inclusion: How Some States Are Doing It and Why Your State Should Too.” This webinar focused on identifying approaches that would help regulatory bodies more effectively collect this data, while assuring practicing attorneys that the data is being used only to understand the current demographics of the profession. 

Metropolitan bars add DEI-focused staff positions

At the Cleveland (Ohio) Metropolitan Bar Association, where DEI has long been part of the bar’s strategic plan, Chief Executive Officer Becky Ruppert McMahon says another key to DEI success is evolution. And to that end, the bar hired Pegah Zardoost in summer 2021 as its first full-time director responsible for DEI programming and initiatives.

“We needed to put our money where our mouth is and really put some significant funding behind a real position,” McMahon says. “We need to be sustained in our efforts.”

For her part, Zardoost plans to coordinate several bar DEI efforts to improve diversity pipeline and education programs while also expanding the work of the bar’s Council on Conscious Inclusion, which was launched in August and includes all bar committee chairs and area affinity bar leaders. The council meets regularly to map out ways to improve DEI in the Cleveland legal community and beyond.

“Inclusion requires conscious action. It’s not a passive occurrence,” Zardoost says.

Adds McMahon, “The need for work in the diversity, equity and inclusion space is expanding. We need to be doing more to move the needle faster and more sustainably than ever before. That’s why Pegah was hired.”

Like the CMBA, the Kansas City (Mo.) Metropolitan Bar Association has long been active in DEI issues in the profession—and, likewise, created a new position to better coordinate and expand on the bar’s initiatives and goals. Among Angela Garcia’s chief immediate tasks is serving as KCMBA’s liaison to the DEI Action Plan/Collaborative of Kansas City and to the area’s affinity bar associations, as well as supporting the works of the bar’s Diversity Section. She will also oversee other bar DEI initiatives, such as the Heartland Diversity Legal Job Fair, a pipeline effort that launched in 2005 as part of a bar diversity initiative that was signed onto by major law firms, local government agencies, and law schools.

“It’s a demonstration of the association’s commitment, and a commitment to doing the long-term work,” says Garcia, the bar’s director of equity and inclusion. “It’s not something that’s one and done; it’s a long-term commitment.”

New statewide collective includes Nebraska State Bar Association, 18 other stakeholders

Working with multiple organizations inside and outside the bar to broaden DEI efforts is also key for Shawntal Mallory in her new position, as of November 2021, as executive director of an entirely new organization—the Nebraska Legal Diversity Council. The council has 19 founding member organizations, including the Nebraska State Bar Association, local and affinity bars, two law schools and other community groups.

“We cannot achieve significant success in this area by operating in silos,” Mallory says. “We think we’ll be more effective making a collective impact to move the needle a little further.”

The NLDC will function as a “backbone” organization to which the partner organizations will designate an individual to serve on the board and commit to active participation as well as funding in the amount of $10,000 per year for the next three years, explains Liz Neeley, NSBA executive director. As a way to include “a diversity of backgrounds, skillsets, and experiences,” Neeley says, a number of advisory council members have been recruited to serve on the NLDC board; they will not have the financial requirement but will have the same voting rights as founding members and will be involved in all levels of the organization.

The structure for this type of work is called a collective impact model, Neeley says, noting that the “centralized infrastructure” that this model provides helps the founding organizations pool their resources and work toward a shared agenda in a more formalized way than when individual organizations collaborate but remain separate.

“While other places in the United States have undertaken collaborative initiatives to improve diversity and inclusion within their legal communities,” Neeley adds, “to our knowledge, this is the first statewide model ever to be implemented with the collective involvement of law schools, firms, corporations and bar associations.”

Like many others in the expanding DEI space at bars, Mallory believes the needle will eventually move forward with partnership and perseverance—driven by an increasing number of committed bar leaders and other stakeholders who understand the value of DEI within the profession and in their surrounding community.

“I think we’re at a point where we can no longer ignore these things,” Mallory says. “I am hopeful, because people are taking this awareness and they’re running with it.”

(Note: This article has been edited to correct an error in the name of the president of the Rhode Island Bar Association. The president is Lynda L. Laing.)

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