chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
January 14, 2022 Vol. 47, No. 3

Small but powerful: National events spur local bars to focus on diversity, equity and inclusion

By Dan Kittay

In the wake of the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, issues that had in some cases been simmering for years came to the surface, and bars of all sizes and in all areas of the country found that they needed to show their members that they understood and were prepared to talk about and take action on diversity, equity and inclusion.

For many local and county bars, this was complicated by the fact that the bar itself was not as diverse as the community it serves or, in some cases, as the pool of lawyers who practice in the area. How have some local and county bars started from where they were and initiated or intensified their efforts to focus on DEI? Bar Leader spoke with a few such bars that have recently made real, concerted efforts toward increased DEI.

Prince William County Bar Association: Passionate discussion leads to standing committee, bar events

The Prince William County (Va.) Bar Association's efforts stemmed from conversations that took place on the bar's Listserv in late 2020 and early 2021, says Executive Director Alissa Hudson. A discussion among PWCBA members that at times grew "passionate" and even heated led to the establishment in February 2021 of an ad hoc committee to "address concerns within our bar, and in our surrounding community, regarding racial inequality and implicit bias," Hudson says. The ad hoc committee's efforts spurred the formation of a standing committee called Raising the Bar, whose goal is to "promote equal access to and treatment of all users of the courts."

The committee has focused on presenting programs that deal with some of the issues that had been part of the online discussion. Meanwhile, a book club within the bar has started reading books that address DEI-related issues, and Hudson says many members have forwarded suggestions for future topics.

The PWCBA, in conjunction with local affinity bars, has also created a program called "JUSTice LIKE ME” (JLM), which attempts to promote diversity by working with students and other members of the community to talk about issues of discrimination and inequity, and to help them connect with a diverse group of members of the legal system, so they can see lawyers and judges who look like them, Hudson says.

The idea for JLM came from Prince William County Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court Judge Jacqueline Lucas. In 2019, before becoming a judge, Lucas was PWCBA president-elect, and she led an effort to include the National Association of Women Judges Color of Justice Program in the bar's activities. This program brings girls, as well as people of color of all ages, together with judges and lawyers to encourage them to seek careers in the law.

The issues of race and gender have long been a part of Lucas' thinking, she says; as a Black woman, "I look around and a lot of times I'm the only one of my kind in a room," she notes. Because of those experiences, she wanted to help others see that they had legal career opportunities available to them.

However, before the program could get started at the PWCBA, the pandemic arose—and then Lucas was appointed to the bench in June 2020, which meant she would not become PWCBA president. The program became the basis for JLM, and Lucas remains a member of the committee overseeing it.

Another member of the committee is Fernando Villarroel, who is president of the Hispanic Bar Association of Virginia. Villarroel says he values JLM’s potential to "increase access to justice and encourage and inspire younger individuals to believe in the system and see if they have a future in it."

Clark County Bar Association: CLEs, events as smaller ‘bites’ of a larger issue

For the Clark County (Nev.) Bar Association, "it was time" to examine DEI issues in closer detail, says Annette Bradley, chair of the CCBA Diversity and Inclusion Committee for Equity (DICE). While the protests taking place nationwide in 2020 played a role in the decision, the bar had been talking for several years about ways to increase diversity, Bradley recalls.

The need "has always been there,” she says. “It just hasn't been acted upon to the degree that we are acting upon it now.”

One of the early actions was to form DICE, in the fall of 2020. Communications Manager Stephanie Abbott sent an email to the bar's 1,500 members inviting them to become part of the committee. "Many members responded positively and wanted to help us," Abbott recalls.

Committee meetings have been conducted on Zoom, with members generating ideas for programs and initiatives that would "facilitate constructive discussion and enhance understanding of diversity issues." Ideas for events include a lecture series, mixers, and educational programs on DEI-related issues.

In October 2021, the bar's first event, which offered one hour of ethics CLE credit for Nevada lawyers, was an in-person luncheon that featured a panel discussion about DEI in the legal profession. 

Moving forward, the committee plans to offer more CLE programming, as well as a possible lecture series to examine DEI issues. The goal, Bradley notes, is to move the bar closer to a fuller understanding and embracing of DEI one event at a time because for many, the subject of DEI seems huge and daunting.

“You can try to take a big bite out of it, but I don't know that the committee wants to take a big bite all at once,” Bradley explains. “[The committee has said] ‘Let's take bites and move it in the direction we want it to go, so that diversity, equity and inclusion are sustainable within the organization and the legal profession.’”

Bar Association of Montgomery County: A 20-week pledge and a DEI certification program

The focus on racial inequity in the U.S. in the summer of 2020 led the Bar Association of Montgomery County (Md.) to form the Racial Justice Council, to address these and other DEI issues, says Wanda Calvin Claiborne, the bar’s executive director.

The council wanted to present discussion of these issues in a way that would be helpful to all bar members without becoming divisive, Claiborne says: “What can we do for the bar association as a whole?”

The council developed a program called “20 Weeks in 2020 Challenge to Learning About Racism.” Participating BAMC members “pledged to actively participate in monthly topics such as allyship and mass incarceration,” Claiborne says. “For four weeks, we would share information for people to read, watch and listen to and then round out the month with a Zoom discussion.”

The council also helped to develop a DEI certification program, where law firms sign up to send their personnel to programs developed by Equity Through Action, an outside consulting firm. The material deals with how to identify and handle DEI issues in the workplace.

Lancaster Bar Association: Fitting DEI into the everyday life of the bar

The national focus on DEI issues in 2020 was the impetus for the Lancaster (Pa.) Bar Association to “reinvigorate” its diversity committee and make “the commitment as an organization to support DEI long term,” says LBA Executive Director Lisa Driendl-Miller.

In 2020, the LBA sponsored Summer of Service, a program that encouraged members to become involved in community service and pro bono activities, many of which dealt with DEI issues, Driendl-Miller says. The bar invited members to join the diversity committee and also to sign up for a CLE program called “The New Science of Racial Disparity: What Lawyers Need to Know.”

Since 2020, other efforts have included a four-part CLE series on “The History of Slavery and Discrimination (1619-1970),” and developing a non-discrimination policy. The LBA has a new, three-year strategic plan that includes efforts to “cultivate equity and inclusion within the LBA,” and also to examine how other professions in the area have addressed DEI.

As with other bars we spoke with, Driendl-Miller says the LBA does not currently reflect the diversity of the community it serves. She believes part of the issue is that younger people tend to gravitate to larger areas after they become lawyers. The LBA is now focusing on making presentations to highlight the advantages of living in Lancaster County, in hopes of attracting young lawyers to move there and join the bar.

Many local bars, especially smaller ones, lack the ability to designate a staff member to solely focus on DEI or to add a diversity director or similar position. For other bars that are in this situation and that want to expand their focus on DEI, Driendl-Miller offers some advice:

“Begin the process by having discussions on how your bar can promote racial justice, diversity, equity and inclusion in your bar association. Renew your commitment to DEI as an organization and establish a plan on how to best support it long term.

"Collect ideas, collaborate, and discuss the outcomes you want to achieve. Provide ongoing training and opportunities to sustain a culture of DEI in our broader community.”

The material in all ABA publications is copyrighted and may be reprinted by permission only. Request reprint permission here.