February 19, 2021

Five trailblazers move needle on diversity, inclusion

The American Bar Association Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession honored five 2021 The Spirit of Excellence Award recipients for their commitment to racial and ethnic diversity in the legal profession. The awards were presented during a virtual ceremony on Feb. 18 at the ABA Virtual Midyear Meeting.

Spirit of Excellence Award recipients (left to right): Barbara L. Creel, Sherrilyn Ifill, Román D. Hernández, Lori E. Lightfoot, and John C. Yang

Spirit of Excellence Award recipients (left to right): Barbara L. Creel, Sherrilyn Ifill, Román D. Hernández, Lori E. Lightfoot, and John C. Yang

ABA graphic

“These outstanding lawyers are the embodiment of excellence in our profession,” said ABA President Patricia Lee Refo. “As we celebrate our successes, we must also act urgently in our work to make the legal profession diverse and inclusive for all.”

The ABA’s 2021 award recipients are (click on the honoree's name for video of remarks):

Barbara L. Creel, professor at the University of New Mexico School of Law, has devoted her career to public defense, specializing in Native American rights and individual civil rights. Creel has extensive experience in tribal courts, federal Indian law and federal criminal law. She is known as an Indian civil rights “guru” by other federal Indian law practitioners.

Creel said in accepting the award, “My heart is also drawn to all of the families and communities that have nurtured and supported me throughout my career.” She thanked various Native American organizations, former and current colleagues, friends and family for everything from opening the door to law to reminding her to eat when she was heavily involved in work.

Creel’s current research centers on the sentencing disparities Native Americans experience in federal courts under the United States Sentencing Guidelines. Creel is a frequent speaker on Native American rights and Indian law for groups such as the National Legal Aid and Defender Association and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. She also gives trainings on race and civil rights for the administrative office of the U.S. Courts. As a law professor, she introduces her students to federal habeas corpus in the Southwest Indian Law Clinic, arguing and winning habeas cases filed on behalf of Native Americans.

Creel said she was grateful to be a part of the federal defender community.  “Thank you to the federal defenders who taught me what excellence in the courtroom and outside the courtroom looks like, for teaching me never give up, never take no for an answer and how to redefine victory in the face of defeat.”

Román D. Hernández is managing partner of Troutman Pepper’s Portland, Oregon, office, a national litigation practice focusing on employment law and commercial litigation. Hernández has a long record of community service. As a second-year associate, he was one of three founders of the Oregon Hispanic Bar Association. He served as national president of the Hispanic National Bar Association and has served on numerous boards of directors in Oregon. He has received the “Ohtli Award” from the Government of Mexico; the Edwin J. Peterson Professionalism Award from the Oregon Bench and Bar Commission on Professionalism; the President’s Diversity & Inclusion Award and the Diversity and Inclusion Champion Award from the Oregon State Bar; and the Civil Rights Champion Award from the Oregon League of Minority Voters.

During the ceremony, Hernández thanked his family, friends, firm and “countless others including those who spoke on my behalf as to why I should receive this award and a number of other people who have touched my life in a very positive and beautiful way.”

Hernández emphasized the importance of continuing to fight for racial equity, noting that “still, 20 years after I started practicing law, the legal profession remains the least diverse profession in America.”

He underscored his commitment to issues of diversity, equity and inclusion in the legal profession “in my local community and nationally as appropriate.”

Sherrilyn Ifill is president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., the nation’s premier civil rights legal organization. Ifill served as an assistant counsel for LDF from 1988-93, litigating voting rights cases. She left LDF to teach at the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore, where she also litigated civil rights cases alongside her students for 20 years. Ifill returned to LDF to lead the organization in 2013 and has emerged as one of the nation’s leading voices in the struggle for racial justice and equality.

Under her leadership, LDF has intensified its litigation challenging voter suppression, racial discrimination in the criminal justice system and housing discrimination and has taken a leadership role in resisting federal efforts to roll back civil rights gains in areas such as affirmative action, employment discrimination and school discipline policies. The organization is also at the forefront of challenging unconstitutional policing practices in cities around the country.

Ifill gave a charge to fellow lawyers while accepting her award. “I challenge you to stop talking about diversity and inclusion and make it happen. To stop talking about criminal justice reform and to do your part to change a system that is so riven with racism and arbitrary cruelty that it shames our nation. Stop talking about the rule of law and speak out when those in high places abuse the legal process and violate the law with impunity.

“Now more than any other time in decades we must live up to the highest ideals of our profession and I challenge us to take this on in 2021,” she said.

Lori E. Lightfoot is the first African American female mayor of Chicago. Since assuming office in 2019, Lightfoot has undertaken an ambitious agenda of expanding opportunity, racial and ethnic diversity and inclusive economic growth across Chicago’s neighborhoods and communities. Prior to her election, Lightfoot served as a senior equity partner at Mayer Brown. Previously, she served as president of the Chicago Police Board, as well as the chair of the Police Accountability Task Force. Lightfoot has also served in other city government roles and as assistant U.S. attorney.

During the ceremony, Lightfoot said the award serves as a recognition of a professional accomplishment, but she would like to “instead receive it as a standard to live up to and a challenge to be worthy of what it represents in the months and years ahead.”

Lightfoot has already made inroads with her reform efforts. Her early accomplishments include landmark ethics and good governance programs and worker protection legislation, as well as key investments in education, public safety, affordable housing and financial stability. Lightfoot has also undertaken investment initiatives specifically targeting Chicago’s Black and Latino communities.  

Lightfoot said lawyers should continue to work to make “democracy whole again.”

“Please heed my call to action,” Lightfoot said to the audience of legal professionals. “Our world, our society need our voices, we need to be at the table in whatever way we can, large or small. We need to uplift the quality of the debate and making sure we are healing and bringing folks together.”

John C. Yang is president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Washington, D.C. Yang leads the organization’s efforts to advance the civil and human rights of Asian Americans to create a fair and equitable society for all through policy advocacy, education and litigation.

In 2019, AAJC and the Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund represented the interests of Asians, Latinos and Native Americans in successfully barring the Trump administration from including a citizenship question on the 2020 census that would have resulted in an unconstitutional undercount of immigrants and communities of color.

Yang co-founded in 1997 the Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center, the first organization dedicated to addressing the direct service legal needs of Asian Pacific Americans in the D.C. metropolitan area. He also served as the principal adviser to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker on issues related to Asia during the Obama administration.

Reflecting on the numerous leadership positions he’s held over the years, Yang said that he accepts the award on behalf of all immigrants.  “Not only am I an immigrant, but I was an undocumented immigrant,” Yang told attendees.  “But it was through the power of lawyers and laws that I got that path to citizenship and I hold that dearly to my heart and I recognize what that means and what that means for us to give back to our country to make our country even stronger.”

The Spirit of Excellence Awards are conferred by the ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession, which seeks 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.