Goal IX Newsletter

Fall 2000, Volume 6, Number 4

Bar Associations Can Jumpstart the Progress of Minorities in the Profession by: Maurice Destouet

The title of the recently published Miles to Go 2000: Progress of Minorities in the Legal Profession may be a misnomer. On most fronts, minorities in the legal profession have not progressed and may have even regressed. Minority entrance into the profession; minority advancement in law firms; confirmation of minority federal judges; and the hiring of minority law faculty— all "stalled," according to the Miles to Go 2000 report (Report), which was released by the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession at the ABA 2000 Annual Meeting.

Maurice Destouet

Bar associations can—and should— play a pivotal role in getting things moving again toward full and equal racial and ethnic integration into the profession, the Report recommends. Mainstream bar associations can apply the Report’s recommendations to attract lawyers of color as members and increase their active involvement. This is an essential step toward achieving "real" diversity in the legal profession. The term "mainstream bar associations" includes not only state and county bar associations but also substantive law and other specialty bar associations whose memberships are comprised largely of non-minorities.

Among the primary reasons cited for the lack of progress for lawyers of color is the lack of formal and informal networking opportunities for them. Developing a substantial book of business is so dependent on networking that the inability to do so is the "kiss of death" to any associate lacking that networking support. The second most oft-cited reason is the lack of accessible mentors. Mentoring goes hand-in-hand with networking and is critical to an associate’s survival and advancement. Mainstream bar associations can serve as the mechanism for developing networking opportunities for the lawyer of color and as a mentor-training resource for senior lawyers.

Bar associations should, according to Miles to Go 200 0, take the lead to further refine the problem and to integrate local and national data. The Report suggests that mainstream bar associations establish uniform research and protocol standards that would integrate local data into a national set of statistics. Mainstream bar associations should organize this process of standardized information collection by networking, sharing data, and formulating research criteria that will allow for easy extrapolation and analysis. The lack of consistency and uniformity in the gathering of statistical information adds an unnecessary layer of complexity to an already complex system of obtaining information. Data gathering should be done on a preset andregular basis and should use standardized racial groupings.

 According to the Report, "minority attorneys face social and professional isolation" and have difficulty "gaining access to [. . .] quality work assignments." Yet, very few legal employers are aware that feelings of isolation and lack of access may exist among the lawyers of color in their own offices. Mainstream bars should make sure that their diversity programs provide legal employers with the tools to recognize and resolve these issues.

Most mainstream bar associations have a diversity or outreach program, and most of these programs have been in existence for at least a decade. Given the conclusions contained in the Report, however, mainstream bar associations should examine these programs to determine whether they are effective and, if not, why not and what needs to be done to make them more effective. The threshold question to be asked in that examination process is whether the diversity programs are providing guidance to legal employers on how to identify and resolve the problems of isolation and lack of access. The programs that I know of more often address the issue of the "need for diversity" than the nuts-and-bolts of how to make such programs work.

To effectively address the issues that are being voiced by lawyers of color, mainstream bar associations must develop, implement, and strongly support programs that educate legal employers on the existence and nature of these problems and how to resolve them. The bar associations must ensure that adequate resources are devoted to the programs. Unfortunately, in many bar associations, diversity programs do not receive sufficient funding allocations. These programs are more often than not staffed and supported on the same level—or even at a lower level—as programs relating to substantive law issues. Diversity programs, however, by their very nature in dealing with human interactions, require a much greater allocation of resources. It is not simply a matter of offering panel or roundtable discussions. While that will suffice for substantive law issues, to be truly effective, a diversity program must on a long-term and committed basis assist the legal employer in dealing with the culture of the legal profession. The legal employer has to be made aware that its way of doing business may engender minorities’ feelings of isolation and lack of access.

Mainstream bar associations also must examine how they handle diversity within their own internal organizations. At a recent roundtable discussion among chairs and vice-chairs of the committees and sections of one mainstream bar association, the discussion centered on a self-examination of the diversity within that bar association. It appeared that the lawyers of color had become "ghettoized" in committees that dealt primarily, if not exclusively, with issues related to color or diversity. Specifically, there was a visible lack of color in the substantive law and other committees. The same self-examination should be part of a mainstream bar association’s examination of its own programs. Undertaking a self-examination will better assist the mainstream bars when it comes time for them to assist legal employers with the same endeavor.

Individual lawyers of color in bar associations must also do their part to end the cycle of isolation and lack of access. They must raise the self-examination issue within their bar associations and the firms in which they practice. They should question whether they have self-selected themselves into a ghettoized environment. They need to ensure that they are themselves fully integrated. Mainstream bar associations that are fully integrated will attract lawyers of color.

Mainstream bars must integrate lawyers of color into their associations by taking steps to ensure their participation on continuing legal education panels and on substantive law committees. At least one mainstream bar has developed written procedures detailing the steps required to ensure outreach to lawyers of color on its substantive law panels. The resultant visibility to other lawyers of color is critical to augmenting membership. A general counsel interviewed in the Miles to Go 2000 report stated that "When you see someone you can emulate at the top of the structure . . . you see you can succeed."

I had the personal good fortune of being mentored into and throughout my bar activities. My participation in mainstream bar associations has always been at the urging or invitation of someone in that association. Each such participation has led to more participation, which has in time and in turn led to networking that resulted in employment and business opportunities. My involvement in mainstream bar associations has been a key element in my having a successful and rewarding legal career and in my feeling connected instead of isolated. For the lawyer of color who does not have his or her own sources for networking possibilities, mainstream bar association contacts can become those sources.

Recently, I was asked by Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer’s office to assist in preparing an invitation list for a reception in his honor during the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. I was asked not because I knew Mayor Archer or anyone in his office, nor because I was the only person with access to a "list." I was asked because someone from my involvement in mainstream bar association activities knew and recommended me. Had I never been involved, I would not have had the opportunity to meet and spend time with one of the most influential men in American politics. I heard somewhere that the way of the world is not "what you know, or who you know, but who knows you." That seems particularly applicable to the legal profession.

Maurice Destouet is president of the MultiCultural Bar Alliance in Los Angeles.

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