Vol. 40, No. 3

Different bars, different ways to work toward diversity and inclusion

by Sandra S. Yamate

The bar leader who is committed to making his or her organization more successful in its diversity and inclusion efforts could easily be a case study in leadership and management.

Stepping out in front? Then will anyone follow, or will they follow for very long? Pushing from behind? Well, it’s a pretty broad behind, and even if you gain traction in one small area, many other areas won’t be moving at all. Encouragement within or alongside the ranks? You’re surrounded on all sides, but there are still too many within the ranks whom you’ll never reach. So, what’s a bar leader to do? Here are a few good examples from bar associations across the country.

Washington State Bar Association: Play to your strengths

For the WSBA, this means data collection, analysis, dissemination, and action. The bar publishes its Diversity Annual Report using data it already collects. It is a comprehensive report that allows anyone to see how the bar is doing in its own diversity efforts—efforts which are considerable—but that also provides a baseline upon which the bar’s leaders can build consensus for the direction of those efforts.

Recently, the bar also published a cutting edge report on diversity, intersectionality and their own membership. The WSBA leaders are smart: Not only are they learning about their own membership, but they are using the information to shape the direction they take in their diversity and inclusion efforts in a way that makes sense for the lawyers in Washington. Bar leaders need to know who their members are and tailor their diversity and inclusion efforts accordingly.

Chicago Bar Association: Emphasize inclusion beyond diversity

As lawyers join the CBA, efforts are made to involve new members in the work of committees directly related to their substantive areas of practice and personal interests. In too many bars, the sight of a lawyer who is diverse automatically triggers a desire to engage that lawyer in the work of the diversity committee. While that may be one of the lawyer’s interests, is it the reason he or she chose to join the organization? If it isn’t, then automatically funneling them into the diversity committee shows a lack of imagination and perception.

CBA leaders have been extremely successful in engaging members who are diverse in the sorts of programs and work that allow them to flourish as bar leaders, not simply as diverse lawyers. It is no surprise, therefore, that this bar has had such success in seeing diverse lawyers at all levels of its leadership.

State Bar of California: Have experts on staff

In many bar associations, staff is relied upon to manage administrative work while the volunteer members are assumed to bring subject-matter expertise. That may work in substantive areas of the law, but diversity and inclusion are different. Diversity and inclusion, as is being currently addressed by the legal profession, is too complex and too nuanced to expect busy practicing lawyers to have the time to become substantive experts on all the facets.

In California, the state bar put in place a staff member who is a lawyer and who happens to be expert on many facets and issues within diversity beyond the ways in which she herself is diverse. More important, the Council on Access and Fairness, the body within the bar that is responsible for its diversity and inclusion work, not only allows but encourages its staff to apply the substantive expertise it has for the benefit of the council and the bar. This results in a partnership of equals that is producing some of the most useable and impactful diversity and inclusion products and programs in the country.

New York City Bar Association: Look for ways to improve

Sometimes, leadership requires a willingness to take a hard look at oneself so as to recognize the potential for improvement and act upon it. That’s what the leaders at the New York City bar have done. Like a number of other bars, the New York City bar had seen the depth and breadth of diversity and inclusion issues result in its having a number of committees with sometimes disparate, sometimes overlapping diversity responsibilities, all operating in a relatively disconnected fashion from each other.

Two years ago, the bar decided that it needed to create a means to examine and assess its diversity programs and efforts, better utilize its resources, more effectively facilitate its diversity communications, and take a big-picture view of its diversity work rather than solely approaching it in a piecemeal fashion, committee by committee. The result was the establishment of its Enhance Diversity in the Profession Committee.

This committee engages the existing committees and stakeholders in the bar association’s overarching diversity and inclusion efforts while also bringing to the table other individuals and organizations who have not traditionally been involved in the bar’s work, even so far as reaching beyond the bar’s own membership. This approach might not work for all, but it seems to be working in New York City.

What will you do?

Bar leaders who wish to advance the diversity and inclusion successes of their organizations have a wide variety of leadership models from which to choose. These are just a few, and what works for one organization might not prove effective in another. Maintaining the status quo, however, guarantees a lack of advancement.

Sandra S. Yamate

Sandra S. Yamate is the chief executive officer of the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession (IILP), a 501 (c)3 organization dedicated to achieving a diverse and inclusive legal profession. She has over two decades of experience advising and guiding state, local and specialty bars on their diversity and inclusion efforts.

Yamate presented on this topic at the 2015 Annual Meeting of the National Conference of Bar Presidents. For more information, see the handout, as well as “Diversity and inclusion: Challenges and opportunities for mainstream bar associations," also in this issue.