chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
July 12, 2023 Chair's Message

From the Chair

Michelle A. Behnke, Author | Tamara Nash, Editor
Michelle A. Behnke

Michelle A. Behnke

Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession, Chair (2022-2023)

As I complete my third year chairing the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession, I want to take a point of personal privilege to express my gratitude. Chairing the Commission has been a gift!

I am grateful for the commissioners, liaisons, and staff that I've worked with over the past three years. As this journey began, we were in the throes of the pandemic. We were not able to work in the usual ways. We had to learn new ways to do everything from regular commission meetings to honoring trailblazers at virtual Spirit of Excellence events. Doing things in new ways did not disrupt us from leaning into the work, accomplishing great things, and building the bonds of friendship and shared mission. I am grateful!

So, what are those great things we've accomplished together? Well, for a start we have significantly increased the number of signatory corporations in the Model Diversity Survey (“MDS”) Program. These corporations have displayed commitment to increasing diversity in the legal profession. They are using the data from the MDS and engaging in critical dialogue with their law firms about hiring, promotion and attrition issues.

We also released three reports based on the data from the MDS. The 2020 MDS Report was released in February 2021. It provided the data from the first three years of MDS survey data. The findings were not all together surprising, but the report confirmed the lived experiences of diverse attorneys and provided a baseline from which we could measure change. The 2021 MDS Report was released in February 2022 and focused on changes and trends from the first report. The recently released 2022 MDS Report took on a new look and feel. We revamped the report by connecting various components of the data to the definitions of diversity, equity, and inclusion. I am grateful to Dr. Richard Harvey and his team for careful analysis and expert reporting that allows Report readers to understand the data. Understanding the data allows us to work on solutions to address the impediments to greater opportunity in the legal profession. I am grateful for these impactful reports!

Over the past three years we've also improved and enhanced our online portal for the MDS. With the help and generosity of Microsoft and Law School Admission Council (“LSAC”) the MDS moved from a “pencil and paper survey” to an electronic portal. The portal allows law firms to easily enter survey data and signatories to see graphic representations of that survey data. We have also enhanced the reporting functionality based on feedback from our signatories. That feedback helped us improve the MDS portal and make it a powerful tool. Thank you to our signatories, Microsoft and LSAC. I am grateful!

Despite the pandemic, the Commission was able to carry on with the Spirit of Excellence award celebrations, hosting two virtual events and one in-person celebration. The ability to convert this signature event into a virtual program allowed us to continue to recognize trail blazers and experience something positive during the stressful days of the pandemic.  I am grateful to our Spirit of Excellence awardees, our staff, sponsors and commissioners for re-imagining this important event. I am grateful!

In addition to our work on the MDS, Spirit of Excellence, and supporting the Collaborative Bar Leaders Academy, this year the Commission engaged in strategic planning, reinvigorating the Commission and refocusing our work. I am grateful to our ABA staff in the Division of Bar Services for their expert guidance in the strategic planning process.  Their expertise was all the more important given that we did most of the strategic planning virtually in one and two hour chunks of time. I am strategically grateful!

We often work hard on projects and programs and are surprised when someone else is unaware of the work being done. Communication is really the key. Over the last couple of years, The Innovator has been given a "face lift" and a "communication lift." I am grateful for the leadership of our Innovator Chair, Tamara Nash, and the entire committee. Creating great content and communicating effectively about the work of the Commission has been a gift. I am grateful!

Early in my career I began working on diversity issues in the State Bar of Wisconsin.  Working to create a place where lawyers of all demographics could participate in this profession. This work ignited my connection to bar service. Thirty-five years later, to have had the opportunity to focus so intensely on DEI issues has been a gift. I am grateful for my original appointment by ABA Past President, Trish Refo, as well as the reappointments by ABA Past President, Reggie Turner, and current ABA President, Deborah Enix-Ross. I am grateful and look forward to seeing the ongoing work of the Commission!

Michelle A. Behnke

Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession, Chair (2022-2023)

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