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November 30, 2022 Feature

The National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges and the U.S. Courts Are Focusing on Diversity in the Bankruptcy Bar and Bench

By Judge Sandra R. Klein

The National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges (NCBJ) is committed to increasing diversity in the bankruptcy bar and bench. In 2021, to “support and promote the placement of diverse and underrepresented law students in judicial internships with U.S. Bankruptcy Judges,” the NCBJ partnered with Just the Beginning—A Pipeline Organization (JTB) to fund stipends for six law students who interned/externed in a bankruptcy judge’s chambers through JTB’s summer Judicial Internship Diversity Project (JIDP).

JTB was established in 1992 to celebrate the integration of the federal judiciary and the retirement of Judge James Parsons, the first African American U.S. district judge, Northern District of Illinois. Inspired by that event, Just the Beginning Foundation, a nonprofit organization of judges, lawyers, and other citizens, was founded to develop educational programs to encourage and foster careers in the law among students of color and other underrepresented groups. Today, Just the Beginning Foundation, which is now known as JTB, continues this mission by offering pipeline programs aimed at inspiring students and increasing diversity in the legal profession and judiciary. JTB—in partnership with the Judicial Resources Committee of the U.S. Judicial Conference—offers law students from socioeconomic, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds underrepresented in the legal community judicial internships/externships through the JIDP.

The 2021 NCBJ Fellows received $2,500 stipends for their work as summer interns/externs for bankruptcy judges and up to $1,000 to defray the cost of attending the NCBJ Annual Conference in Indianapolis, Indiana, in October 2021. By all accounts, the 2021 NCBJ Fellowship program was a huge success.

The NCBJ Fellows had a broad range of experience working for bankruptcy judges across the country. They were also invited to a diverse array of online events, including a series of discussions by legal luminaries, and a happy hour during which they met each other and members of the NCBJ Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee (DE&I Committee).

At the end of the summer, the DE&I Committee sought feedback from the NCBJ Fellows about their experiences. Each of the NCBJ Fellows mentioned how much they learned and enjoyed their internships/externships. One NCBJ Fellow described being selected for the Fellowship as an honor and remarked that it boosted his confidence and helped him to tackle the tasks that he was given during his externship. A second NCBJ Fellow indicated that her externship “definitely piqued” her interest in bankruptcy law. Another Fellow summarized her participation in the Fellowship as follows: “[o]pportunities that lead to an experience such as this one open up the world to students like me who do not come from legal legacy homes. I am truly grateful for this experience and look forward to finding ways to contribute and give back to students in this program and programs like this in the future.”

Five of the NCBJ Fellows participated in the Indianapolis Conference and took full advantage of all the wonderful educational and social programs offered. To ensure that the NCBJ Fellows felt welcomed and included, the DE&I Committee paired each of the NCBJ Fellows attending the Indianapolis Conference with a NextGen mentor and a bankruptcy judge mentor. The DE&I Committee also organized numerous events so the Fellows could meet and mingle with the bar and the bench. The NCBJ Fellows were invited to participate in a NextGen dinner and bike ride. The NCBJ Fellows and the Blackshear Fellows had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity meeting and sharing lunch with Jimmie McMillian, the chief diversity officer for Penske Entertainment, whose story is truly inspirational: He grew up in an abusive home in a dangerous area of Chicago; he struggled in college and flunked out, eventually finding his stride in law school.

During the Indianapolis Conference, the NCBJ Fellows were also invited to a special event to meet Frank J. Bailey, NCBJ’s 2021 president; Sixth Circuit Judge Bernice Donald; District Judge Sara Darrow, Central District of Illinois, chairperson of the Judicial Conference Committee on the Administration of the Bankruptcy System (Judicial Conference Bankruptcy Committee); and the presidents of the Federal Judges Association and Federal Magistrate Judges Association. Like the other Indianapolis Conference attendees, the NCBJ Fellows thoroughly enjoyed their time at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, including racing around the track at 130 mph!

The DE&I Committee sought additional feedback from the NCBJ Fellows after they returned from the Indianapolis Conference. Before being selected as NCBJ Fellows, 60 percent were not interested in pursuing a career in bankruptcy law. After participating in the Fellowship and the Indianapolis Conference, 100 percent of the students indicated that they were interested in possibly pursuing a career in bankruptcy, and each student indicated that they would be interested in acting as a mentor for future NCBJ Fellows. As a direct result of the NCBJ Fellowship program, two participants who had never considered careers in bankruptcy will be serving as judicial law clerks for bankruptcy judges starting this fall and in the fall of 2023. I am thrilled that the NCBJ is creating our own pipeline of diverse individuals interested in bankruptcy and insolvency careers and a pipeline of soon-to-be mentors for the next generation.

Because the 2021 NCBJ Fellowship program was so successful, in 2022, the NCBJ again provided funding for six additional NCBJ Fellows, who each received $3,000 stipends for their work as summer interns/externs for bankruptcy judges and up to $1,000 to defray the cost of attending the NCBJ Annual Conference in Orlando, Florida, in October 2022 (Orlando Conference). Like the 2021 NCBJ Fellows, the 2022 NCBJ Fellows participated in numerous educational programs during their internships/externships, and the NCBJ hosted two happy hours during which the 2022 Fellows had the opportunity to meet and mingle with each other and the DE&I Committee.

Throughout the Orlando Conference, there were numerous programs of interest for the 2022 NCBJ Fellows and younger lawyers, including a “Passing the Gavel” program, during which federal judges discussed their unique paths to the bench to demystify the appointment process and encourage the next generation to pursue a career with the judiciary. Before the Orlando Conference, the DE&I Committee “paired” each of the 2022 NCBJ Fellows with a NextGen mentor, a Blackshear mentor, and a bankruptcy judge mentor. We hope that those mentoring relationships will continue after the Orlando Conference. I am happy to report that I have monthly calls with David, the 2021 NCBJ Fellow with whom I was paired during the Indianapolis Conference, and I look forward to following his successes as he finishes law school, starts his judicial clerkship with a bankruptcy judge, and begins his practice, which he hopes will focus on bankruptcy law.

If you are interested in participating in the JIDP program during the summer of 2023, please complete a Volunteer Interest Form. Sometime this fall, a JTB representative will contact you. If you have any questions about the JIDP, please contact me or Cristina M. Figueroa at JTB.

The U.S. Courts

The U.S. Courts are also focused on broadening the potential pool of qualified applicants to the bankruptcy bench. In 2019, the Judicial Conference Bankruptcy Committee presented a national diversity event for law students and lawyers: “Roadways to the Federal Bench: Who, Me? A Bankruptcy Judge?” The 2019 Roadways event included a panel discussion live-streamed from Washington, D.C., which addressed diversity in the federal judiciary and specifically on the bankruptcy bench, followed by roundtable discussions in 19 cities—with local bankruptcy, magistrate, district, and appellate judges—about pathways to the federal bench for candidates from a variety of backgrounds. I am happy to report that the 2019 Roadways event was a resounding success; 10 lawyers who attended that event are now bankruptcy judges!

On April 3, 2023, the Judicial Conference Bankruptcy Committee will partner with the Committee on the Administration of the Magistrate Judges System to host the second iteration of the national diversity event, this time called “Roadways to the Bench: Who Me? A Bankruptcy or Magistrate Judge?” The 2023 Roadways event is aimed to further the “judiciary’s goal of casting a wide net to attract the broadest possible pool of qualified applicants from which to select new bankruptcy and magistrate judges.” This goal is aligned with the Strategic Plan for the Federal Judiciary by promoting public confidence that the judicial system is fair and objective. The 2023 Roadways event has expanded to 38 cities in 27 states and territories! As did its predecessor, the 2023 Roadways event will include a panel discussion live-streamed from Washington, D.C., to the other locations and local roundtable discussions with federal judges about pathways to the bench for potential applicants from a variety of backgrounds. Many cities will also host receptions, ranging from wine and cheese socials to cappuccino and espresso bars, during which attendees can meet and mingle with judges. If you are interested in learning more about the 2023 Roadways event, please contact Matt Hindman or see the Roadways to the Federal Bench website.

As of 2020, the last year for which statistics were available, the bankruptcy bench was the least diverse bench in the federal system: Only about 8 percent of bankruptcy judges are people of color. That has not changed much since 2015, when only 7 percent of bankruptcy judges were diverse.

You might think, I am only one judge, what can I do? You can do a lot. You can engage in outreach to students of all ages in underrepresented communities. You can host mock trials for grade school students so that they have an opportunity to come to the courthouse, meet a judge, and learn about the justice system. The ABA has some great mock trial scripts for grade school students, including Goldilocks and the Three Bears and Jack and the Beanstalk. For students in middle and high school, you can host mock trials involving subjects that interest them such as accidents involving texting while driving, student bullying, and the limits of students’ free speech rights. You can also volunteer to speak to classes or at school assemblies about being a judge, our democracy, the three branches of government, and the separation of powers. You can speak at local law schools and encourage students to consider applying for judicial internships/externships and clerkships and, most importantly, you can hire law students from underrepresented groups as judicial interns/externs and as judicial law clerks and serve as mentors throughout their academic and professional careers. As aptly stated by former NCBJ President Frank J. Bailey, “We are a better and stronger system with diversity on the bench. Having people from different cultural backgrounds changes perceptions and broadens your understanding of the world around you.”

The NCBJ and the U.S. courts are taking positive steps to help expand the pipeline of future bankruptcy judges to reflect the communities that we serve. With everyone’s help, we can move the needle so that the next generation of practitioners and judges represents a much broader segment of the population of this great nation, which will help promote public trust and confidence that our judicial system is fair and objective for all.

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    By Judge Sandra R. Klein


    Judge Sandra R. Klein was appointed as a U.S. bankruptcy judge for the Central District of California in 2011. Judge Klein is co-chairperson of the National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges (NCBJ) Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee. She may be reached at [email protected].