It was about four years ago that a little more than 100 attorneys, most of them in the Seattle area, joined to form QLAW: The GLBT Bar Association of Washington. Meetings were held in various law offices, and "our records were kept in somebody’s Excel spreadsheet," jokes Dainen Penta, the bar’s current president.
Today, QLAW boasts close to 250 members statewide, has an active bar foundation, and hosts an annual fund-raising gala cosponsored by Starbucks and more than a dozen law firms. "Now," says Penta proudly, "we have our own online database."
While QLAW has worked hard to become better known in Washington, Penta says, the fledgling bar has also gotten a bit of help along the way. The larger King County and Washington State bar associations each provided meeting space, promotional assistance, and valuable advice to the bar, he says, and regular meetings with presidents of other special-focus bars in the state also offered guidance.
Such sharing and partnerships among special-focus bars and their larger brethren are becoming more common, many bar leaders say, particularly as the number of these bars appears to be growing. Many black, Hispanic, Asian-American and women’s bars have long histories, and the last decade has seen the establishment of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender—sometimes the first two terms are reversed, resulting in a different acronym), Muslim, Vietnamese-American, Korean-American, and other special-focus bars across the country. Within the last year alone in Washington, QLAW has been joined in the realm of special-focus bars by the Filipino Lawyers of Washington and the Middle Eastern Law Association of Washington.
Launching and maintaining a small, focused bar association has its share of challenges, along with the rewards, Penta and others say. Such challenges, they add, are even more daunting in today’s volatile economic climate that threatens jobs and gives members pause before joining. And not coincidentally, the larger "big brother" bars face their own challenges—many of them similar as they seek to grow and diversify themselves.
The result for some larger bars and their special-focus neighbors is a growing number of initiatives that seek benefits and improved relationships for all involved. The hope, they say, is that partnership will trump parochialism on the way to helping all bars grow in their missions.
As Penta and others who have formed or joined special-focus bar associations say, membership in such associations is often driven by the growing need to address legal issues uniquely related to those communities, as well as to provide a place for social and professional camaraderie for lawyers of similar backgrounds and interests.
"Our very existence is extremely important for acceptance of GLBT issues. We needed other bar associations to know that we weren’t going anywhere," says Penta, explaining some of the reasons for QLAW’s formation. "We needed to provide a place for GLBT attorneys to be out and comfortable with their colleagues."
As Asim Rehman notes, larger bars can’t always provide that specific focus. Attacks and aspersions aimed at New York’s Muslim lawyers and the community in the aftermath of September 11 were some of the main factors that led to the creation of the Muslim Bar Association of New York in 2006, says Rehman, the bar’s president.
"We were formed to address the educational and social needs of Muslim attorneys in New York, as well as the Muslim community," he says. "We’re uniquely poised to safeguard the rights of that community, which has faced significant problems since 9-11. There is a bond that we have with that community."
Sonjui Kumar, a lawyer for 20 years, went to her first local meeting of South Asian attorneys in Atlanta in 2002. Today, she is the president-elect of the North American South Asian Bar Association, an organization that went nationwide that year.
"That first meeting was a complete revelation. I had no idea that there were so many of us practicing in so many different fields," she says. "There are so many cultural issues that are very specific to lawyers of South Asian descent that are not addressed in other forums or bar associations."
It’s hard to get a good gauge on exactly how many special-focus bars are out there, or how many lawyers belong to one or several of them. However, statistics gathered by the ABA and large state bars such as California, New York, and Texas—along with observations of veteran bar leaders—indicate an increase in the numbers and types of special-focus bars. And there may be more growth coming, if the diversification of law schools is any indication: In 1984, law schools awarded 8.6 percent of their JD degrees to minorities, according to the ABA. By 2007, that per-centage jumped to 22.5.
Less than two years ago, the ABA established the Commission on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity to address increasing concerns about workplace equality and discrimination. "Perhaps we are the most recent [minority] group to be specifically identified, but that reflects the general trend in society, and the inclusion of LGBT attorneys is growing steadily," says Jeff Gibson, the commission chair. "There are many state and city LGBT bar associations that have been in place for several decades, but they continue to grow."
The increasingly global economy and its effect on the United States have played a role in NASABA’s growth, Kumar notes. "The explosion of business in South Asia, especially India, has also increased the interest of those of South Asian descent and others in South Asia in a South Asian bar," she says. "Law school attendance by South Asians is also increasing by leaps and bounds."
A lawyer for nearly 30 years and a bar member for 20, Bernice Leber has noticed the change and growth in special-focus bars. "There is a much greater number of minority bar associations now than when I joined the [New York State] Bar Association in 1987," says Leber, president of the 76,000-member voluntary bar. "We’ve become more of a bar that is part of an all-embracing society."
Growing the bar
While enthusiasm for establishing and maintaining special-focus bars is strong in many places, leaders say such efforts have faced and continue to confront hurdles along the way.
"The [association] mail comes to me. We have no need for office space right now," says Lana Knedlik, president of KC LEGAL (Kansas City Lesbian, Gay, and Allied Lawyers). After legally forming last year with a handful of members, the bar now has about 60 dues-paying members and 200 people on an e-mail list. Dues are $50 a year for lawyers and $10 for law students and paralegals.
With no staff and a small budget, the all-volunteer bar uses its funds carefully. Knedlik’s law firm designed and houses the bar’s Web site, another area firm provided the graphics, and Knedlik updates the content regularly her-self.
Still, she says, KC LEGAL is quickly gaining notice in Missouri and Kansas. The bar has picked up sponsorship funds from the Kansas Bar Association and the Asian-American Bar Association of Kansas City, and has had representatives participate in recent networking and educational events with the Kansas City (Mo.) Metropolitan Bar Association.
Knedlik sees great potential for more growth, with hopes of joint CLE programs with the KCMBA, more participation from area law school students, and more educational programs for the legal and nonlawyer communities.
To help grow the Muslim Bar of New York in its infancy, Rehman says, the bar limited dues and relied on Muslim lawyers who were experienced in activities at other, larger bars to guide the new bar. The bar now has more than 100 members and more than 250 subscribers to its Listserv, he says, and it continues to grow.
When Khurshid Khoja first became involved with the South Asian Bar Association of Northern California in the late 1990s, he was a law student who took advantage of mentoring opportunities and informal gatherings at law schools and offices of South Asian attorneys. Back then, the bar was known as the Indo-American Bar Association.
Today, the San Francisco-based bar is the largest local chapter in NASABA, with more than 450 members. Among the bar’s biggest challenges, Khoja says, is helping some members deal with lingering discriminatory fallout aimed at South Asians after 9-11. "It’s particularly hard for South Asians who are religiously observant Muslims," says Khoja, the first Pakistani Muslim president of the bar.
The bar is currently considering joining with NASABA and the Iranian American Bar Association to commission a poll designed to examine the issue of discrimination against South Asians, Muslims, and Middle Easterners in the United States.
Larger bars lend support
As the South Asian Bar Association of Northern California moves ahead with the poll and other issues affecting its members, Khoja knows his bar will have support from other bars in the Bay Area—not only from other special-focus bars, but also from the area’s largest bar, the 7,000-member Bar Association of San Francisco. It’s a collaboration that Khoja and other bar leaders are seeing more often.
"The relations between the bars have matured quite a bit in the last few years," Khoja says. "The BASF is a big, open tent, and they have made every effort to reach out to minority bars."
That outreach is no accident, says Yolanda Jackson, who in 2007 was named the BASF’s first diversity director. When she interviewed for the position, she says, the bar’s board of directors made it clear that she needed to improve relations between the BASF and the area’s special-focus bars. "One of the first questions they asked me," she recalls, was, " ‘What are you going to do to stop us from looking like the big parent bar organization that’s squashing the little guys and taking credit for things?’ "
To that end, Jackson has taken several steps to bring the larger bar closer to the area’s special-focus bars, including:
regularly attending meetings of virtually all of the bars, as well as many of those bars’ social and educational events;
actively participating in the area’s Minority Bar Coalition, which meets regularly to discuss current issues and activities;
establishing a Listserv aimed at all of the special-focus bar leaders; and
promoting a BASF initiative begun in 2005 that reserves two seats on the bar’s 26-member board of directors for Minority Bar Coalition members.
"We’ve developed a constant line of communications with hundreds of people," Jackson says. "Where we can, we’ve reached out and helped them with artwork for programs, mailings, and meeting space. It’s really kind of a partnership."
In Washington, Dainen Penta praises the assistance QLAW has received from the Washington State Bar Association and Chach Duarte White, the bar’s diversity program manager. "My job is to bridge the gap between the minority bars and the Washington State Bar Association," White says. "We’re starting to share information more."
In less than a year in the post, White has been active in creating a central calendar for all of the state’s 15 minority bars, updating the Listserv the bars use, offering meeting space and other WSBA services to the bars, and coordinating more networking opportunities among the bars and the WSBA.
Communication with all of the special-focus bar leaders is key, White says. "I’ve had lots of cups of coffee and lots of face time," she notes. "I want to know how the Washington State Bar Association can help them."
Keeping open lines of communication and offering partnering opportunities and help was Bernice Leber’s goal when she convened an informal luncheon in her New York law office last fall with leaders of 40 special-focus bars throughout the state, along with key NYSBA committee leaders. It was the first time such a gathering occurred, she says.
"We recognized that we’re all interested in helping our own respective organizations flourish," Leber says. "We’re not here to compete."
Rehman praises Leber and the state bar for reaching out and offering help. "It was encouraging to see the veteran bars doing what they could to help, and to see the newer bars at the table. We all share a lot of interests, and it’s good to know what other bars are doing," he says. "We’re still learning about the best ways to run a bar association."
In Louisiana, where the disruptive effects of Hurricane Katrina continue to linger and cause organizational problems and membership drops among special-focus bars, Kelly McNeil Legier has been active in helping such bars regroup. She is director of member outreach and diversity for the Louisiana State Bar Association.
"We’ve written articles about them, we’ve helped them with publicity, we’ve partnered with them on CLE. We want to help them become more visible," Legier says. "We’ve helped to reorganize the Hispanic Lawyers Association [of Louisiana]. They’re meeting every month at the [LSBA] Bar Center."
Even smaller "big bars" are embracing the concept of sharing and partnership with nearby special-focus bars. The 1,900-member Jacksonville (Fla.) Bar Association hosted its first-ever Diversity Symposium in February, inviting all the special-focus bars in the area—and minority and nonminority law students—to participate in discussions to improve relations among the organizations.
"Our goal was to show them what a great team we could be, working together," says Jacksonville Bar President Joseph Camerlengo, who championed the event. "We’re looking for that balance between autonomy and working together. This is not going to be a one-year, simple project. We want to take diversity into the community, starting with the legal community."
The benefit of this cooperation for the bigger bars? Many hope that the interaction will not only bring more members into their bar associations, but will also lead to greater diversity in their membership—and perhaps more important, in their leadership.
"I’m getting more information about Hispanic lawyers that I wasn’t getting before. There’s a working relationship now," Legier says.
The improved lines of communications now make it easier for the BASF’s Jackson to get in touch with minority bar leaders. "If we’re looking for a new section chair, I’ll pick up the phone and ask them for some good candidates," she says.
Shortly after Leber met with New York’s special-focus bar leaders, the NYSBA held a minority summit at its annual meeting in January in which leadership opportunities for diverse bar members were emphasized. "We’ve had plenty of applications since then from minority members, seeking leadership information," Leber says. "Many [special-focus bar members] have commented that they want to learn more about participating in the ‘bigger bar.’ "
Many special-focus bar members are welcoming the opportunities as well. "There’s been a lot of encouragement to have [our members] consider running for [California] state bar positions. There’s been a real, active push," Khoja says.
Leaders of both mainstream and special-focus bars say increased cooperation can help all of the bars weather the challenges they face now and in the future—particularly in how the poor economy might eat into membership and programming. Some bars are encountering problems with laid-off members, shrinking sponsorship and fundraising revenue, and members who are working longer and harder to keep their jobs.
"Our main concern in this economy is sponsorship dollars and whether those will come in," says NASABA’s Kumar. "We are worried about attendance at our national convention, since travel dollars are so tight at many firms."
The WSBA’s White is also fearful of the economic impact on Washington’s special-focus bars and their limited financial resources. "We’re trying to figure out more ways that we can help them," she says.
One of the most valuable assets of working with a larger bar, says Asim Rehman, is the exposure to more networking opportunities for unemployed and underemployed special-focus bar members. "[Our members] may not easily see the kind of networking and professional opportunities that come from being part of a large, well-funded, active bar association," he says.
Penta thinks his and other special-focus bars may actually benefit from the economic downturn for many of the same reasons. "In this economy, it’s even more important for attorneys to be involved in the bar, to be active and networking," he explains.
One issue up for discussion among bar leaders in Jacksonville is a program that would give lawyers a discount if they maintain membership in the JBA and one or more special-focus bars. "It would be well worth it to have a more diverse bar than to have more revenue," Camerlengo says.
The LSBA’s Legier recently met with leaders of special-focus bars in Louisiana to discuss the impact of the economy on their members—and how the mandatory state bar can help. "I told them, ‘We’ll help you update membership lists, provide meeting space, do printing, research … whatever we can,’ " she says.
Despite these challenges and others that special-focus bars face, many leaders remain optimistic that their associations will continue to grow, while advancing the mission and core values and ideas that brought them together. Many of the larger bars that work with them say they remain committed not only to helping those bars, but also to reaching out to more diverse lawyers to get involved in their bar activities and initiatives.
"Every year," Rehman says, "we seem to accomplish more."
Diversity summit will take a look back—and forward
More resources and ideas for growing special-focus bars and helping larger bars diversify are likely to emerge next month after an unprecedented ABA Presidential National Diversity Summit. As many as 150 bar leaders, judges, lawyers, law professors, and others active in diversity issues have been selected by ABA President H. Thomas Wells Jr. to participate at the summit, scheduled for June 18-20 in suburban Washington, D.C.
The summit will review successes and failures in the overall bar’s diversity movement over the last two decades and look at the best ways to map future efforts, says Cie Armstead, director of the ABA Center for Racial and Ethnic Diversity.
"The outcome of this summit will be used as the impetus for projects that will span the next two ABA presidential terms," she says. "It’s a multiyear effort led by key decision makers."
Details on the summit, both before and after, can be found on the ABA Web site at www.abanet.org/diversity/summit.