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Association Seeks Ideas on Legal Profession Diversity

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.

Roughly 200 attorneys representing law firms, law schools, bar associations, corporations, and other organizations met this past weekend near Washington, D.C., to develop ideas to facilitate greater diversity in the U.S. legal profession. The American Bar Association (ABA) convened the attorneys during its Presidential Diversity Summit titled “Diversity in the Legal Profession: The Next Steps?” at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center.

Citing the demographic predictions that the United States will have a non-White majority by the middle of this century, ABA officials talked largely about the need to attract more underrepresented minorities to the legal profession while also making the profession more attractive to women, individuals with disabilities, and individuals in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. Conference attendees also deliberated on improving retention rates of diverse attorneys in law firms and in public service. According to the U.S. Census in 2000, Blacks accounted for 3.9 percent of U.S. lawyers; Hispanics were 3.3 percent; and Asians were 2.3 percent of U.S. lawyers.

“I’ve said that, when gifted men and women of diverse backgrounds face systemic barriers to entering law school, to doing well on the admissions test, to matriculating from law school, and to rising in our profession, it’s not just a lack of opportunity for those individuals, it is a loss opportunity for the legal profession as we try to serve an evermore diverse population,” said H. Thomas Wells, president of the American Bar Association, at the summit’s opening reception.

Wells said the summit was aimed at helping renew ABA efforts to develop a diverse legal profession. According to Wells, the ABA over the past 20 years has seen diversity efforts reach a peak – “a point where only about 12 percent of the lawyers of this country come from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.”

“While that is double the level 25 years ago, we lag shamefully behind the rest of society,” Wells said.

Summit keynote speakers included Kareem Dale, special assistant to President Barack Obama for disability policy; U.S. Rep. G. K. Butterfield, D-N.C.; Weldon H. Latham, senior partner of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP in Washington, D.C.; and Judge Cruz Reynoso, former justice of the California Supreme Court and professor emeritus at the University of California Davis School of Law.

In addition to hearing talks from keynote speakers, summit attendees heard from expert speaker panelists and broke into small working groups to develop specific ideas on improving diversity. ABA officials said they expect to publish an online compilation of diversity measures from the summit so that ABA members can broadly develop and implement them.

In a breakout session that examined retention and legal profession pipeline programs, Stephen Zack, the ABA president-elect for 2010-11, proposed that the ABA establish a national law camp program during which the national organization, in coordination with local bar associations, would provide an intensive introduction for disadvantaged high school students on careers in the legal profession.

Echoing the need for early intervention pipeline programs, William Weisenberg, assistant executive director for public affairs and government relations for the Ohio State Bar Association, described how bar association affiliates in six Ohio cities in cooperation with the office of the Chief Justice of the Ohio State Supreme Court had in the past year established an intensive legal profession introductory program for disadvantaged eighth-graders. The program, Weisenberg explained, provided the students with mentorship and assistance through college and law school.

“This is the second summer of the ‘Law and Leadership’ program in Ohio, and we think it has tremendous promise,” Weisenberg said.

Dennis Archer, a former ABA president and former Detroit mayor, said it is critical for the ABA as well as local bar associations to establish partnerships with school districts where lawyers can directly interact with socially disadvantaged school children.

“First and foremost, we have to encourage and motivate young people while they are in the middle school grades to consider law as a profession. And bar associations of color, African-American, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, et cetera, have a responsibility to go into these schools and share with the students why law is such an outstanding and admirable profession and to give them examples of lawyers who have shaped and changed America,” Archer told Diverse.  “And by encouraging them at an early age, we also lay out the necessary things that they must do in order to be considered for law school.”



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