May 01, 2016

A Blueprint for Promoting Diversity in the Law

By ABA President Paulette Brown

All of us came into the law to be agents for change: to do good, to right wrongs, to better society, and to bring justice to all. My hero, Charles Hamilton Houston, one of the legal giants of the first half of the twentieth century, said that a lawyer is “a social engineer.”

His charge to be a social engineer is the primary reason why one of my top priorities as president of the American Bar Association (ABA) is to find ways to enhance justice by working to eliminate bias and to promote full and equal participation in the legal profession and the justice system.

Diversity and inclusion are part of the bedrock that underpins the ABA. Eliminating bias and enhancing diversity and inclusion is Goal III, one of the four key goals of the ABA.

To better promote diversity and inclusion, we have created the ABA Commission on Diversity and Inclusion 360 (DI360), co-chaired by Eileen M. Letts, a partner in Greene and Letts in Chicago, and David B. Wolfe, a partner in Skoloff & Wolfe PC in Livingston, New Jersey.

Members of DI360 include a highly talented, committed, and diverse group of individuals from almost every sector of the profession: the federal bench, large law firms, solo firms, corporations, federal government, and law schools. They are formulating methods, policy, standards, and practices to advance diversity and inclusion over the next 10 years.

We are not simply creating another report. DI360 is reviewing and analyzing diversity and inclusion in the legal profession, the judicial system, and the ABA with a goal of developing sustainable action plans.

DI360 is examining a range of questions that include: What can be done to address implicit bias? Is there a standard instrument that can assist law departments and law firms in consistently benchmarking diversity? Is the military an additional pipeline for bringing diversity into the profession? What are best practices to ensure that ABA entities are consistently creating and executing strategic diversity plans?

Because promoting diversity and inclusion is a significant mission, DI360 has four working groups that have undertaken the 360-degree review of where we stand:

Pipeline Working Group

As we know, there is a disturbing lack of diversity in the legal profession. We are the least diverse of comparable professions, including accountants, physicians, and financial managers. Eighty-eight percent of lawyers are white.

The problem begins in grade school, where there is a school-to-prison pipeline driving children out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Across the nation, students of color face harsher punishments in school than their white peers, leading to a higher number of youth of color incarcerated. According to the U.S. Department of Education, black and Hispanic students represent more than 70 percent of those involved in school-related arrests or referrals to law enforcement.

Many of these children have learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse, or neglect and would benefit from additional educational and counseling services. Instead, they are isolated, punished, and pushed out.

The Pipeline Working Group will address the pipeline to the profession and create resources targeted to the underrepresented community. Its components include

  • K–12: Here we are looking to create a centralized database that provides resources to potential law students, educators, and those who serve as mentors to young people that will ignite their curiosity about the legal profession and connect them to programs designed to enhance the essential skills necessary to be successful as a law student and future attorney.
  • College/pre-law: We are examining law school admission readiness, financial barriers to attending law school, and alternative avenues to entering law school, such as community colleges and the military. For example, we will examine how to highlight JAG opportunities along with other legal careers at events at colleges and law schools.
  • Law school/bar passage: We are looking at law school admissions and bar passage.

The Economic Case Working Group

Virtually no progress has been made by the nation’s law firms in advancing all diverse attorneys, women, attorneys of color, and particularly women lawyers of color into the highest ranks of all firms. This group’s specific mission is to expand economic opportunities for all attorneys—racial and ethnic, women, those with various forms of ability, and LGBT.

This Working Group seeks to expand economic opportunities for women and diverse attorneys by working with organizations closely allied with general counsels and by considering recommendations that would encourage corporate law departments to increase their legal spend with diverse attorneys. The group is looking at how to urge greater economic opportunities for diverse lawyers, with meaningful standards and metrics.

This Working Group seeks to do this by

  • Reaching out to and collaborating with entities that share its mission of diversifying the profession and increasing/expanding economic opportunities for diverse attorneys.
  • Developing a model request for proposal (RFP) for use by corporations and a model tool for data collection from law firms.
  • Proposing a policy resolution to the ABA House of Delegates that urges greater economic opportunities for diverse lawyers that includes meaningful standards, metrics, and measures.
  • Equipping in-house counsel with the tools they need to spur more sustained action by outside counsel.
  • Developing a plan of action for the implementation of diversity programs that can be launched collaboratively in the future.
  • Examining the use of implicit bias training materials.
  • Developing targeted implicit bias training materials for in-house counsel and law firms.
  • Developing partnerships and programs with organizations and entities that have goals, objectives, and missions similar to the 360 Commission.

The Implicit Bias Working Group

Harmful attitudes and stereotypes—often unconscious—damage perceptions of the fairness of our justice system.

  • The Implicit Bias Working Group explores what can be done about implicit bias in our justice system and is focused on creating training materials for judges, prosecutors, and public defenders on that topic.
  • DI360 wants everyone—judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys—to understand the role implicit bias plays in the delivery of justice.
  • The Implicit Bias Working Group is building on the work of others in the association, such as the ABA Judicial Division, the Section of Litigation, and the Criminal Justice Section. These three entities make up the ABA’s Joint Committee on Fighting Implicit Bias in the Justice System. A book is being drafted by this entity that focuses on fighting implicit bias in the justice system while advancing citizen understanding and support for the justice system.
  • In addition, this Working Group has been gathering implicit bias information regarding the work of entities such as the National Center for State Courts, prosecutors and defenders associations, bar associations, academicians, and other renowned experts on implicit bias.

The Diversity and Inclusion Working Group

This Working Group is helping the ABA examine itself and its role in fostering diversity and inclusion. Specifically, the Working Group will

  • Develop a model entity/organizational diversity plan providing uniform guidance and best practices to both ABA and external entities seeking to develop or update their respective diversity plans.
  • Create a diversity and inclusion clearinghouse on the ABA webpage that provides members and prospective members with a well-designed “one-stop shop” web portal containing information on and links to the wealth of diversity and inclusion activities, research, and initiatives happening across the association.
  • Propose an ABA Goal III internal Continuing Legal Education Policy to ensure diversity and inclusion is a critical component of all CLE offered by the association.
  • Propose an ABA House of Delegates Resolution that encourages all state, local, and territorial courts, bar associations, and regulatory authorities that require mandatory continuing legal education to modify their rules to include, as a separate required component, programs regarding elimination of bias and diversity and inclusion in the legal profession of all persons regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or various forms of ability.

We would not be where we are with the push for diversity and inclusion without the outstanding work of the ABA entities that are devoted to the task, including the Commission on Disability Rights, the Center for Racial and Ethnic Diversity, the Commission on Women in the Profession, the Commission on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, and the Task Force on Gender Equity. These entities remain essential to our diversity and inclusion efforts.

Not long before he died, Charles Hamilton Houston charged African Americans “to tolerate no ceiling on ambitions or imagination.” In our diversity and inclusion efforts, we have tolerated no ceiling on ambition or imagination. These are grand plans, a blueprint for a more inclusive and diverse concept of justice.

These plans grow out of the thinking and creativity of hundreds of ABA members, legal professionals, judges, attorneys, and scholars who cherish the ideal of justice. They know that the expansion of diversity and inclusion in the legal profession, in the justice system, and in our society will enhance and expand justice and leave an important legacy to our nation.

American Bar Association President Paulette Brown

Paulette Brown, partner and co-chair of the firm wide Diversity & Inclusion Committee at Locke Lord LLP, is president of the American Bar Association.