Vol. 38, No. 4

Diversity and inclusion: Strategy, collaboration are key to bars’ success

by Marilyn Cavicchia

Should every bar association have some type of diversity effort, no matter how modest in scope?

Actually, said Yolanda Jackson, deputy executive director and diversity director at the Bar Association of San Francisco, you should first make sure you have the resources to do it well. For example, she said, a single reception each year will not achieve any real goal, but will use up resources, and a statement of commitment on your website will mean nothing if it’s your bar’s only attempt at diversity.

Ask yourself whether you want to add a diversity component because it's needed in your area and is something the bar can fully support, or simply because other bars have them, Jackson suggested to members of the National Association of Bar Executives at the group’s 2014 Midyear Meeting in Chicago. Jackson spoke on diversity and inclusion as part of a panel that was moderated by Cie Armstead, director of the ABA Center for Racial and Ethnic Diversity. Also on the panel were Tim Groshens, executive director of the Minnesota State Bar Association, and Patricia Lee, special assistant for diversity and bar relations at the State Bar of California.

In short, Jackson said, treat your diversity efforts like any other program within the bar, and be honest about the resources you can commit, in terms of money and staff and volunteer time. And be realistic about the “political landscape” within the bar, she suggested; are the board, the president, and the executive director in favor of the idea of adding a diversity component? If not, she said, you’ll be wasting time, “mind bandwidth,” money, and energy. Also, others will get frustrated when they come to you with plans and then nothing happens because of political obstacles.

Killing some things to focus on others

Groshens agreed that diversity efforts should be treated like other bar programs—even if that means eliminating some programs that have noble goals but lackluster results.

The MSBA is now wrapping up two years’ worth of work to improve how it conducts its diversity efforts. One big change, Groshens said, was moving from a volunteer-driven model to one where most of the work is done by staff. Groshens compared this to a trend in the ‘80s of having a law office management committee; most bars have since realized that, while volunteers can contribute in important ways, such efforts are much more effective and efficient when they are managed by staff.

The other big change, he said, was to eliminate a few programs that sounded great on paper but which, for whatever reason, either never really took off or had begun to dwindle. Eliminated were:

  • a minority bar summit, which Groshens said was attended by many majority bar leaders but very few from the minority bars;
  • a minority clerkship program in which participation had dropped by half;
  • paying for minority bar leaders to attend ABA Annual and Midyear meetings, with the ABA waiving the registration fee (only three or four people took advantage of this offer);
  • a pledge for large firms to sign that they were committed to women’s advancement; and
  • a diversity CLE that was consistently attended by only five people.

The MSBA has now refined its diversity focus to making the bar itself a model of diversity, and working with the state’s minority bars. To do those tasks well, the bar increased its funding for diversity, shifted a part-time staff person to other duties, and hired a full-time diversity director, who has been charged with coming up with a plan to best direct the bar’s newly refocused energies. The MSBA's diversity committees must now work with the diversity director, Groshens added.

But just because a staff person is at the helm, that doesn’t mean members aren’t heavily involved. “Volunteers are an essential component to getting it done,” Groshens noted, adding that besides giving their time and energy, volunteers can also use their “bully pulpit” to lend their support to diversity and to the bar’s efforts in that vein.

This has been true for Jackson as well. One of the BASF Justice & Diversity Center's most long-standing diversity projects is Goals and Timetables for Minority Hiring, Retention, and Advancement, which asks firms in the Bay Area to set diversity-related percentage goals and then report how well they met them. This has been done every five years since the ‘80s, Jackson said, noting that it was “not popular” at first and that “volunteers were hugely influential” in getting law firms on board. It’s important, she added, that not all of those enthusiastic volunteers be people of color.

A diversity think tank

Lee mentioned a challenge that may apply to other mandatory bars, too: Her bar’s diversity efforts can’t be funded by attorney dues. Instead, Lee said, there’s a voluntary Elimination of Bias Fund to which many firms contribute $5 per attorney.

Similar to the MSBA, the State Bar of California recently restructured and refocused its work in the area of diversity, Lee said. The bar used to have a lot of different efforts on behalf of different populations of diverse lawyers, through five different committees, without much connection or collaboration among them.

To better streamline and coordinate its efforts, the bar sunsetted a task force and replaced it with the Council on Access and Fairness, whose mandate is to be creative and to “think at a higher level,” like a think tank. The council’s strategies are to:

  1. "Produce Institutional and Attitudinal Changes" that will help foster diversity and inclusion in the legal profession and the judiciary;
  2. "Communicate to Inspire and Engage Diversity" and serve as a catalyst for change;
  3. "Partner, Collaborate, and Coordinate to Achieve Diversity" by working with other groups and individuals; and
  4. "Measure Change" by developing mechanisms to track diversity in the profession over time.

The Council is currently focusing on measurement, Lee said, adding, “You can’t overlook the importance of surveys.” But a big survey, one that exceeds SurveyMonkey’s capabilities, can be expensive, she noted. Another option, she said, is to conduct smaller polls where you seek input from specific sections of the bar. Often, she noted, those get a much higher response rate than surveys of the general membership.

The five committees remain and are active, but now they must vet their proposals with the Council, Lee said. Strategy underlies which proposals are approved and acted on, she said, adding that the Council uses the acronym SMART to evaluate whether a proposal is strategic and specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and realistic, and has an appropriate time frame. The Council will soon have a three-year strategic plan, noted Lee, as the result of a retreat.

Partnering with other stakeholders

Lee is a member of the ABA Center for Racial and Ethnic Diversity and received the Center’s Spirit of Excellence Award shortly after speaking to NABE. She’s also part of the Center's Bar Association Diversity Professionals Network, which offers a Listserv, monthly conference calls, and webinars for diversity directors at bar associations across the country. (Bar staff members for whom diversity is a significant portion of their job may join the Listserv by sending their name, title, and contact information to diversity@americanbar.org.)

Both Jackson and Lee recommended working closely with law schools, particularly as the economic crisis in legal education has hit students of color disproportionately hard and has driven down the number of those who are applying to law school. Lee, who noted that a large majority of community college students in California are people of color, mentioned a new pipeline initiative through the Council's College/Law School Committee: the 2+2+3 Community College Pathway to Law School Initiative.

This involves law-related classes in community college, followed by another two years, in any major, at a participating four-year university. Provided they successfully complete their study and meet GPA and LSAT standards set by the participating universities' law schools, participants are then guaranteed admission. The partner universities and their law schools include: UC Davis, UC Irvine, University of Southern California, and Santa Clara University.

Law firms can also be great partners in diversity, all three panelists said. One reason the MSBA was able to let go of some programs that were foundering, Groshens said, is that large firms in Minnesota have their own diversity organization with a number of successful programs, including minority clerkship. Both Lee and Jackson mentioned that law firms can be great sponsors for diversity-related events; some will jump at the chance to show their commitment in this way.

For state bars, local bars can be important allies, Jackson and Lee noted. The State Bar of California facilitates efforts in big-picture areas like diversity, but again, is limited by its mandatory status. Sometimes, Jackson said, if Lee has something she’d like to do but can’t, she’ll call Jackson to see if BASF can do it instead.

“We can be pretty ‘out there’ with what we take on,” Jackson said, noting that her bar can be “more flexible” and is glad to assist the state bar with these issues of shared concern.