chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
July 01, 2022

Changing the face of the legal profession

The historic elevation of Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson to be the first Black woman on the U.S. Supreme Court reflects the stepped-up efforts of the Biden administration to better reflect America in Article III federal courts.

But from policies to the work of commissions and the activities of other entities, the American Bar Association has long been a leader in efforts to diversify the judiciary and bring more diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) to the entire legal profession.

Every ABA entity is charged with taking steps to eliminate bias and enhance diversity in the legal profession.

Every ABA entity is charged with taking steps to eliminate bias and enhance diversity in the legal profession.

Getty Images

Despite Biden having appointed 68 judges, 77% of whom are women and 65% of whom are lawyers of color, nationwide lawyers of color — Hispanics, Blacks and Asians — have experienced slow growth. In 2011, lawyers of color were collectively 11.7% of the profession; last year they represented 14.6%, according to the ABA National Lawyer Population Survey. Hispanics make up 18% and Blacks 13% of the overall U.S. population.

The numbers reflect the historical obstacles that lawyers of color have faced in the legal profession, and the ABA was not without taint some decades ago: The association didn’t admit Black members until 1950.

Today, every ABA entity is charged with moving forward Goal III, which is to eliminate bias and enhance diversity in the legal profession. In 2018, the the ABA Center for Diversity and Inclusion in the Profession, an umbrella group housing distinct diversity entities charged with advancing Goal III as it relates to race and ethnicity, women, disability, LGBTQ+, pipeline issues and social justice, was created. Many of the ABA’s overall programs, resources and information are listed on a diversity and inclusion resources page. In addition, the Racial Equity in the Justice System serves as a clearinghouse for ABA-related policy, publications, training and other resources addressing issues surrounding bias, racism and prejudice in the justice system.

Most recently, in August 2021 the ABA Board of Governors adopted a comprehensive member plan detailing DEI as a strategic imperative for the association.

Altogether, the ABA manages an array of pipeline diversity initiatives aimed at early-career lawyers and law students, including:

  • 10 clerkship/internship programs
  • Five annual skill-development workshops
  • Three financial scholarship programs (intellectual property, LGBT public interest and diversity center/general) that help at least two dozen students with financial assistance each year. 

One special effort was last fall’s ABA Equity Summit, which educated and mobilized more than 1,100 lawyers, law students, judges and legal professionals from across the country on critical DEI issues over four days. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic justice and first woman of color on the high court, participated in a fireside chat.

Efforts to target the next generation of lawyers include:

  • Legal Opportunity Scholarships. Every year, the ABA offers 10 to 20 scholarships of $15,000 to first-year law students of color. The goal is to encourage racially and ethnically diverse prospective lawyers to apply to law schools. Since its inception, the ABA has given scholarships to more than 400 students across the country.
  • Judicial Clerkship Program. For 22 years, the ABA has assembled judges and law students of color for a three-day program for training, instruction, mentorship and networking. The aim is to prepare and encourage the students to consider becoming judicial clerks, and more than 1,100 diverse law students have participated. The earliest participants are now midcareer lawyers; one is a federal judge.
  • National pipeline initiatives. This year, the ABA educated hundreds of stakeholders from every stage of the educational pipeline via a 10-part “Re-imagining Legal Education: Innovations in Pipeline Programs” webinar series. Also, available is a searchable national database of projects, programs and initiatives geared toward diverse students interested in pursuing legal careers.

The pipeline extends to the top ABA positions of responsibility. Since 2003, the ABA has had four Black presidents: Dennis Archer, Robert Grey, Paulette Brown and currently Reginald Turner. In August, Deborah Enix-Ross will become the fifth. The first and only Hispanic ABA president was Stephen Zack in 2010, who fled Cuba as a boy.

After the August 2022 Annual Meeting, Mary Smith, whose ancestry is Native American, becomes the president-elect of the association, making her the third of the three top officers for the year who are lawyers of color. She is slated to assume the ABA presidency in August 2023, becoming the second known Native American to do so.

There’s concrete hope that Ketanji Brown Jackson won’t be the last or only Black woman on the U.S. Supreme Court.