February 05, 2017

ABA honors 4 diversity trailblazers

The American Bar Association recognized four lawyers with its 2017 Spirit of Excellence Award for their commitment to racial and ethnic diversity in the legal profession. The awards were presented Feb. 4 during a ceremony at the ABA Midyear Meeting in Miami.

Left to right: Kenneth G. Standard, Stephen N. Zack, Peggy A. Nagae and Thomas W. Fredericks

In her opening remarks, ABA President Linda A. Klein expressed gratitude for the work of members and staff to advance diversity and inclusion, and congratulated the awardees, calling them role models for the profession. “I have been to every one of these lunches since they started, and my anticipation grows stronger every year,” she said, noting the inspirational stories of the attendees shared at the event.

Chair Will Gunn of the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession, hoped that the honorees’ stories would encourage attendees to continue the fight.  “What more can you do?” Gunn asked the audience to consider.

The 2017 award recipients are:
(click on recipients' name for video)

Thomas W. Fredericks graduated in 1972 from the University of Colorado School of Law in Boulder, where he began a long and distinguished mission to advance the field of Indian law.

“It certainly is an honor to be standing before you today receiving the Spirit of Excellence award, an ABA honor that I never dreamed when I left the reservation and went to law school that I would be standing here,” said Fredericks, recognized as having inspired many young people to enter the legal profession.

While in law school, Fredericks was instrumental in developing the first Indian law class and he was a charter member and first treasurer of the Native American Law Students Association. During this time, he also helped form the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder, Colo. As a staff attorney, and later director, he was instrumental in bringing Indian law to the forefront of the American legal system.

As a student, Fredericks said he was interested in environmental and economic issues. He is part of the first generation of Native American lawyers who practices federal Indian and tribal law. “I knew the future for Indian country wasn’t doing pow-wows, but we had to create wealth for the reservations,” Fredericks said.

“My mother preached to me about going to school. She also told me she didn’t want another cowboy, but a professional, so I took her up on it and became a lawyer,” he said.

He worked to improve the legal and political relationships that tribes have with both state and federal governments. On June 18, 1980, Tom was appointed by President Jimmy Carter first as associate solicitor and then as assistant secretary of Indian affairs for the Department of Interior. After leaving DOI, Fredericks founded his law firm in Colorado, Fredericks Peebles & Morgan LLP, which has become the nation’s largest Indian law firm. He manages the firm’s Colorado office’s day-to-day services, providing oversight on all cases and transactions.

Peggy A. Nagae founded the firm Peggy Nagae Consulting in 1988 in Portland. Nagae earned an A.B. from Vassar College in East Asian Studies, a J.D. from Lewis and Clark Law School, and an M.A. from the University of Santa Monica. She is also a graduate of Harvard’s Educational Management Program. Nagae was a trial attorney at Betts Patterson and Mines in Seattle, assistant dean at the University of Oregon Law School, a partner in Nagae, Nash and Hoarfrost, and senior trial attorney at the Urban Indian Council. She also served as president of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, vice-chair of the ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity, president of the Asian Bar Association of Washington and board member for the Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

Nagae represented Minoru Yasui, reopening his World War II Japanese-American curfew case and ensuring his conviction was vacated. Referencing case, Nagae said, “I accept this award knowing I am here today because of those who have come before me.”

“I went to law school because my parents were incarcerated during World War II. I have a mission and feel a responsibility in my generation to do something more in terms of justice because my parents didn’t have that opportunity.”

Nagae added that places like the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession “give us both a voice, but also a place to speak about issues that are near and dear to our community and advance civil and human rights.”

One of those issues for Nagae is immigration.  

Nagae highlighted a recent statement by the ABA on President Trump’s executive orders on immigration issued in January, saying that the orders “jeopardize fundamental principles of justice, due process and the rule of law. “Thank you President Klein for issuing that press release and for stating that the ABA stands firm on its responsibility to protect the rights guaranteed by the Constitution,” she said to thunderous applause.

Nagae said that lawyers can make a difference in what is going on in immigration today, but, “we must be brave and big and bold.” The lawyers who have been standing on the “frontlines of airports” are good examples of those who are “taking great big bold steps.” She encouraged the audience to support those lawyers in their work.

She assured the audience that “big and bold is in each of us. And can be part of your next conversation.”

Kenneth G. Standard is a pathfinder whose leadership throughout his life as the “first” has created an array of opportunities for many.

Yvette Simmons, a member of the Commission, who introduced Standard at the awards, said though he faced poverty and discrimination throughout his life, his family had always assured him of his value. “His name spoke for itself,” she said. “He had standards grounded in love and shaped by many hands that had touched his life.”

Standard inspired his colleagues in the New York State Bar Association Corporate Counsel Section to create an internship program to provide summer in-house internship positions for law students from a diverse range of backgrounds. That effort also led to his creation of the New York State Bar Association Youth Law Day programs that have provided thousands of inner city high school students with the opportunity to spend the day at a New York state law school, taking mock classes and interacting with diverse lawyers, law students and law faculty.

Standard and his late wife, Valerie, established an educational opportunity fund at the New York State Bar Foundation.  He is a former member of Epstein Becker & Green PC, was the firm’s first general counsel and is now general counsel emeritus. Standard also is chair emeritus of EBG’s National Diversity and Professional Development Committee, which includes members from each of its 13 offices nationwide.

Reflecting on his parents’ journey to America, Standard said they immigrated from the Caribbean and the president’s recent orders on immigration reminded him of how unfair the immigration system was when his parents arrived, whereby fewer people were accepted from smaller places like the Caribbean and larger numbers were accepted from areas like Northern Europe,” to stack the game,” he said.

Regarding the recent executive orders, Standard said: “This is a reminder that we can never cease to be vigilant in protecting our rights. We as members of the bar have a greater responsibility than most others in being vigilant.”

Standard encouraged the audience to pledge to continue to think about those who are less privileged economically. “Let us not forget them,” he said.

Stephen N. Zack is a partner with Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP in Miami. Zack is a board certified trial lawyer and a widely recognized leader. Zack is a past president of the American Bar Association (2010-11) and was the first Hispanic American to become president of the ABA. He was also the first Hispanic American and youngest president of the Florida Bar. Zack has served as president of the National Conference of Bar Presidents and as the chair of the ABA House of Delegates. He is a fellow of the International Academy of Trial Lawyers.

Zack was nominated by President Barack Obama for the position of alternate U.S. representative to the 68th session of the general assembly of the United Nations, and he served as senior advisor to the U.S. State Department. He is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Zack said the work of diversity and inclusion in the profession has to be the work of all lawyers. “Unless our profession looks like our society, ultimately society would not respect who we are or what we do.”

He said that people have to feel that they are talking to a lawyer who thinks, looks and understands them.

Zack shared the story of his family’s immigration to America. He was raised comfortably in Cuba until “one night, it all changed.”

Referring to the Cuban Revolution, Zack said, “We thought that the Cuban Constitution was going to protect us. It did not. Does that sound familiar?”

Building on the immigration stories of the other award recipients, Zack said, “The loss of liberty in my lifetime is not a theoretical exercise -- I’ve actually experienced it.”

Zack said that today’s debate about immigration has been going on since the days of President George Washington. He shared a quote from Washington: “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions.”

Presented by ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession, the Spirit of Excellence Award celebrates the efforts and accomplishments of lawyers who work to promote a more racially and ethnically diverse legal profession. Awards are presented to lawyers who excel in their professional settings; who personify excellence on the national, state, or local level; and who have demonstrated a commitment to racial and ethnic diversity in the field of law

The mission of the ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession is to promote racial and ethnic diversity and inclusion within the legal profession. The Commission serves as a catalyst for change, so that the profession may more accurately reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of society and better serve society. The Commission promotes the recruitment, hiring, promotion and advancement of attorneys of color and works to ensure equal membership and employment opportunities for diverse lawyers in the ABA. The Commission accomplishes all this through many initiatives, activities and programs, including the annual Spirit of Excellence Award.