Diversity concerns prompt broad debate

first_img Diversity concerns prompt broad debate Gary Blankenship Senior Editor Take several lifetimes of experience, add in a generous heaping of statistics, season with some freewheeling discussions and suggestions, and simmer in the moot courtroom at St. Thomas University in Miami.But the result wasn’t designed to be a tasty morsel delicious to everyone. Rather the goal was some hard-boiled answers about how Florida’s legal profession can look more like its diverse population.“It is here we will change the future of The Florida Bar,” said MaryAnne Lukacs, welcoming participants to the Bar’s Symposium on Diversity in the Legal Profession, held April 16-17.Miami attorney Katherine Silverglate, who helped organize the symposium, presented some demographic numbers. According to the 2000 census, 78 percent of Florida’s population is white; 15 percent is African American; 3 percent is Asian-Pacific; 2 percent is multiracial; and the rest are other racial makeups. The U.S. census tracks those of Hispanic origin separately, noting they can be either of Caucasian or African origin. Their figures put the Hispanic population in Florida at around 17 percent.Twenty percent of Floridians have a disability, she said, while Matthew Dietz, chair of the Public Interest Law Section, said that figure is 29.8 percent in Miami. Those with disabilities, he added, are vastly under-represented in the legal profession and also have much higher unemployment rates than people without disabilities.On gender, 51.2 percent of the population is female, and 48.8 percent is male, Silverglate said.The Florida Bar, for legal reasons, does not collect mandatory gender and ethnic information about members, although it does voluntarily request that data, and almost 60 percent of Bar members supply it.According to those statistics, Silverglate said, 88 percent of the Bar’s membership is white; 7 percent is Hispanic; 3 percent is African American; and the rest are other races. Seventy percent are men and 30 percent are women, the latter up from 17 percent in 1986. Among young lawyers, the numbers are more diverse, she noted, with 77 percent white, 5 percent African American, 13 percent Hispanic, and the rest other races. Fifty-four percent is men, and 46 percent is women.Bar President-elect Kelly Overstreet Johnson said the Bar has faced difficulties in trying to get women and minorities involved with Bar activities, not because doors are closed, but because it has had trouble attracting applicants.“I’ve been involved in the Bar for 20-plus years. I have never found it to be anything but open and welcoming,” she said. “What I have found is it’s difficult to get other women and minorities involved in the Bar.”She noted she just completed making her committee appointments for the 2004-05 Bar year, and is also chairing the screening committee that is reviewing applicants for judicial nominating commissions around the state. In both cases, the problem was getting women and minority lawyers to apply. Johnson said she probably appointed a record number of women and minorities to committee leadership positions, but she still wanted to do better.“When I was doing my committee appointments, I did not have people apply who I could appoint. I am committed to making this a very diverse organization. But if I don’t get people to apply, what am I supposed to do?” Johnson told the symposium. “There was a deadline; we advertised; we went out and beat the bushes. Miles [Bar President Miles McGrane] sent information to minority bars. We didn’t get the applications.”McGrane noted that committee appointments showed how Bar policies can be changed to help diversity. Several years ago, the Bar Board of Governors adopted term limits for committee service, which became effective as McGrane became president. That produced many more vacancies on Bar committees, and allowed him to greatly improve diversity and Johnson to do even better.Other statistics and examples, however showed why women and minorities may be less likely to become involved in Bar activities. 11th Circuit Public Defender Bennett Brummer said his office has a higher percentage of women and minority attorneys that do private law firms. St. Thomas Law Dean Bob Butterworth, the former Florida attorney general, said when he was the state’s top legal officer his legal staff reflected Florida’s diverse population, which meant he had disproportionately more women and minority lawyers than private firms.Dinita James, president of the Florida Association for Women Lawyers, said those examples are borne out in studies that show women and minorities are more likely to have public service jobs, which pay less and don’t give time off or pay for participation in Bar activities.Those in private firms, she noted, tend to be younger lawyers who face heavy demands to produce billable hours which, after family obligations, leaves little time for Bar work.James also cited ABA and other studies that show working women are still responsible for 70 percent of household and child rearing duties; and while 44 percent of male lawyers have nonworking spouses, 84 percent of women lawyers have spouses who work full time. Women and minorities also often feel they are undervalued at private firms and given less challenging assignments and opportunities, she said, which is why they opt for public employment.Two lawyers in private practice said if firms are reluctant to hire and promote women and minorities, they are making a mistake.“I think having diversity in a law firm is good business,” said John Kocyak, a Miami attorney. “Our firm’s biggest victory was two and a half years ago when a jury awarded us over $90 million, and the first chair was a woman and the second chair was a black partner who was six months pregnant. I think the jury related to those people.”Arrayed against them were lawyers from four large firms, none of whom were women, he noted.Kocyak said his firm once made a woman a partner while she was on maternity leave and did the same for another who was, at the time, working only part-time. It did so because it recognized their abilities and saw it as an investment in retaining quality lawyers.Law firms, he added, are sometimes afraid to hire women or minorities because they fear they will be sued if that lawyer fails. Instead, they should attack the problem as lawyers do with any challenge, by carefully planning how to succeed, he said.Besides, Kocyak observed, “It’s much more interesting to be with someone who is different from you.”Lee Stapleton Milford, a partner at Baker & McKenzie, agreed diversity is good business for law firms.“General counsels at the Fortune 500 companies always ask us about diversity,” she said. “Our professional population should reflect our client list. We have a diverse population of clients in the United States, yet our lawyers don’t look like our clients. We can’t attract new clients unless we have lawyers who look like America.”Much of the discussion focused on law schools, with officials from Florida International University, St. Thomas, and Florida A&M University law schools noting they have highly diverse student populations and engaging in some good-natured bantering about who was the most diverse.But they also had some surprising data. That included that while law schools rely heavily on LSATs in determining admissions, that test is not a good predictor of law student success. It does, however, have validity in forecasting how they will do on the bar exam.That’s important for diversity because minority students still tend to score slightly less on standardized tests, such as the LSAT, than nonminority students.“There is no correlation between your LSAT score and your success as a lawyer or your ability to practice, but there is a correlation between the LSAT and the ability to pass the bar exam,” said Percy Luney, dean of the FAMU law school.Linda Harrison, an associate law professor at Nova Southeastern University, said Nova set up a special program for applicants with marginal LSATs, but who had other indicators they could succeed in law school, such as high grade-point averages. Those students are allowed to take two law school classes, either on the campus or online, and if they do well, they are admitted as regular law students.The top student in one current class year at Nova was admitted through this program, Harrison said, and it has also boosted the school minority law school enrollment by 10 percent to around a third of the students.Luney, though, said it is important to have standards because it would be unfair to admit students for three years of legal education and potentially high debt who then don’t have a realistic chance of passing the bar exam.Other discussions at the symposium included personal experiences and potential solutions. The final report is expected in a few weeks, and will be posted on the Bar’s Web site at www.flabar.org.The value of diversity was summed up by 11th Circuit Judge David Young, who is openly gay. He noted surveys that show the vast majority of law students saying diversity improved their education experience and changed their view of the criminal justice system.“If you have lunch or dinner with people who are different from you, you learn,” he said. “That is why I am a champion of diversity. We only live on this earth one time, and if we don’t learn from each other, how sad is that?” May 1, 2004 Senior Editor Regular News Diversity concerns prompt broad debatelast_img

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