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Bar launches pipeline to diversity

By Diane Curtis
Staff Writer

Ruthe Ashley

More than 400 lawyers and judges attended the State Bar’s 2006 Spring Summit in San Jose, which set the wheels in motion for promoting proven programs that will bring more people of color into the legal profession.

“It’s unacceptable,” said Ruthe Ashley, a State Bar board member and chair of the bar’s Diversity Pipeline Task Force, “that 53 percent of the state population is made up of people of color and only 17 percent of lawyers in the state are people of color.” California needs to greatly narrow that gap, and not just because it’s the right thing to do, said Ashley, assistant dean of career and professional development at McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento. “It’s no longer just a feel-good reason. It’s become a business reason.”

Globalization means that California — and the nation — are providing services to a widely diverse population, and the more lawyers who look like their clients, understand their clients’ cultures and backgrounds and relate to the expanding universe, the more successful they will be.

The summit, “Dream Deferred No Longer: Achieving Diversity in the Legal Profession,” included providing a “baseline” of statistics from which to measure future improvements in a state that currently has more than 203,000 attorneys.

For example, task force members compiled statistics showing that in Los Angeles County, where Hispanics make up 45 percent of the population, only 6.6 percent of lawyers are Hispanic. In Santa Clara County, where Asians make up 26 percent of the population, Asian lawyers account for 9 percent of the attorneys. In San Francisco, whites make up 81 percent of the legal force while they are just 44 percent of the population. In Alameda County, blacks make up 6 percent of the general population  and 2 percent of the attorney workforce. In Fresno County, the largest ethnic population is Hispanic, at 44 percent, but Hispanics comprise only 7.4 percent of the lawyers in the county.

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Brenda Harbin-Forte presented figures showing percentages of African-American, Asian/Pacific Islander and Latino judges in different counties compared to their percentages in the general population.

In Kern County, where 51 percent of ethnic minorities make up the population, only 3 percent of judges are ethnic minorities. Eighteen counties — Contra Costa, Fresno, Kern, Los Angeles, Monterey, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Francisco, San Joaquin, San Mateo, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, Solano, Stanislaus, Tulare and Ventura — had a difference of more than 25 percent between total ethnic population and total number of ethnic judges in counties with more than 10 judges.

“We have a long way to go in achieving diversity in our court system,” Harbin-Forte said.

Four different Pipeline Task Force working groups representing education, bar associations and law firms, courts and government, and corporate counsel offered a preliminary agenda designed to ensure that more underrepresented minorities become part of the legal profession. A final list of proven programs will be rolled out at the bar’s annual meeting in October by outgoing President Jim Heiting, who created the task force.

All the programs are in place somewhere, but, said Rod Fong, moderator of a summit panel and assistant dean at Golden Gate University School of Law, they are not widespread. Fong said in studying the issue of diversity, he kept hearing two messages from lawyers: too many programs are done in isolation and it’s time to stop talking about the problem and start doing something about it.

Approved pipeline programs, which start in pre-school and continue into the working years, meet four criteria, Ashley said.

They meet standards of continuity, sustainability, impact and replicability and are not one-time programs that are here today and gone tomorrow, she said.

They must have a long-term effect that translates into plugging the pipeline leaks that rob young people of the opportunity to consider going into law. That can mean programs for elementary school students where attorneys go into classrooms on a regular basis or six-week, pre-law institutes or better LSAT preparation for those students who tend not to test well.

About 270 legal professionals from around the state attended the summit. Another 150 participated in a first-ever California Judicial Summit program designed to encourage more diversity in the courts.

A pipeline to the profession (by Jim Heiting, president, State Bar Baord of Governors)

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