Diversity in the legal profession examined State bar holds diversity symposiums at law schools

By Roberta M. Gubbins

Legal News

Nationally, the legal profession lags far behind other professions in having diverse membership. The ABA study of racial and ethnic diversity showed that only 10 percent of lawyers were people of color much lower than medical doctors (25 percent), accountants (21 percent), and college professors (18 percent).

In Michigan, despite of the rich diversity of our state's population, the numbers are no better. The State Bar of Michigan (SBM) report of 2009-10 shows that, among all the active Michigan resident members who reported race and ethnicity, African Americans, Asian Americans, American Indians, Arab Americans, and Hispanic Latino Americans together made up just 10 percent of Michigan's lawyers.

There are four rationales that support creating greater diversity in the profession:

--The Democracy Rationale: Lawyers and judges have a unique responsibility for sustaining our political system with broad participation by all citizens. A diverse bench and bar create greater trust in the mechanisms of government and the rule of law.

-- The Business Rationale: Business entities are rapidly responding to the needs of global customers, suppliers, and competitors by creating workforces from many different backgrounds, perspectives, and skill sets. Ever more frequently, clients now expect and sometimes demand lawyers who are culturally diverse.

-- The Leadership Rationale: Individuals with law degrees often possess the communication and interpersonal skills and the social networks to rise into civic leadership positions, both in and out of politics.

-- The Demographic Rationale: Our country is becoming diverse along many dimensions and it is expected that the profile of LGBT lawyers and lawyers with disabilities will increase more rapidly. With regard to America's racial and ethnic populations, the Census Bureau projects that by 2042, a majority of America's citizens will be citizens of color.

The roots of the commitment to diversity can be traced back to the 1986 report of the Michigan Supreme Court's Citizen's Commission to Improve Michigan's Courts. As a result of that study, the Commission recommended that court employment and court-assigned duties be available to all, and that the racial/ethnic composition of courts' staffs reflect as soon as possible the composition of the community.

The next step came in 1989, with the Final Reports of the Michigan Supreme Court's task force, which concluded that citizens and lawyers alike believed that bias affects justice. The report contained 67 recommendations to eliminate bias and discrimination. In 1998, the final report of the task force contained concrete recommendations about how to improve the diversity of the profession. In 2003, the State Bar created the Committee on Justice Initiatives and formed the Equal Access Initiative to continue to address these issues.

This summer the SBM held three Diversity Project Colloquia at law schools across the state, the final one being at MSU College of Law on June 28. The purpose of the meetings is to draft a commitment for consideration by the State Bar that would be a voluntary sign-on by those entities who wish to commit themselves to diversity, with follow-up assessment and positive recognition for those who demonstrate concrete progress in diversifying the profession.

"Today's symposium is an opportunity to move the needle forward," said Charles Toy, SBM President, welcoming the attendees. "This has been a long standing effort of the State Bar. The focal point of today's session is to create a draft statement of support for diversity and inclusion."

Recognizing the importance to success of the State Bar's efforts to have a point person on staff to focus the resources of the bar, Greg Conyers was hired last fall to be the first State Bar Directory of Diversity. One basic working concept going forward is to draft a commitment for consideration that would be a voluntary sign-on by those entities who wish to commit themselves to diversity, with follow-up assessment and positive recognition for those who demonstrate concrete progress in diversifying the profession.

"This (the push for greater diversity in the profession) could be the civil rights issue of our generation," said Chief Justice Kelly, via video. "It is my hope that your work here will produce a statement of intent for the future. Our objective is that together, we will advance this agenda in substantive and sustainable ways."

Published: Thu, Jul 8, 2010