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Bar diversity effort moves to a higher level

By Diane Curtis
Staff Writer

Update: Board of governors creates Access & Fairness Council

By a vote of 16-2, the State Bar Board of Governors agreed to create an Access & Fairness Council devoted to increasing diversity in the legal profession. The 25-member group will replace five existing access committees that are neither well-funded nor well-staffed.(Read complete story in the December 2006 CBJ - online December 1)

Determined to put a laser-like focus on achieving diversity in the legal profession, State Bar leaders and members of the bar’s Pipeline Task Force are asking the board of governors to replace five legal access committees with one council that would dedicate itself to recruitment, retention and advancement of underrepresented groups.

Under a proposal to be presented to the board at its November meeting, the new 20-member Council on Access & Fairness would be composed of members from the judiciary, bar associations, corporate counsel, law schools, universities, school districts, education, law firms and public agencies. It would be charged with advancing the Pipeline Project started by former State Bar Presidents John Van de Kamp and James Heiting, which aims to increase the diversity of the bar by identifying promising students early on and educating and supporting them toward becoming lawyers.

“We’re moving the pipeline to a new level,” said State Bar President Sheldon Sloan. “The five committees have been extremely helpful in allowing us to achieve the success we have enjoyed to date, but it’s time to pull it all together and operate not as a task force, but rather as an ongoing part of the mainstream structure of the bar.”

Ruthe Ashley

Sloan noted that bar Vice President Ruthe Ashley, who chaired the Pipeline Task Force, has long been working with State Bar staff on how to best use the funds available, which are raised through voluntary check-offs on lawyers’ fee statements, for the diversity goals. The conclusion was that a single council, rather than five disparate committees, would be a better use of limited funds. “We operate in a world with finite assets,” said Sloan, “and it’s our duty to our members to maximize the effectiveness of our dollars.”

Ashley, assistant dean of Career and Development at University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, said everyone on the task force was asked to work out a plan to institutionalize the Pipeline Project — “to see how we could do the work of diversity in a very practical, effective and productive way.” She said the goal is to have different groups working together, rather than on their own, toward the important goal of diversifying the legal profession. Formation of a council will save time and money with an end to duplicative efforts by the committees, she said.

The committees to be consolidated with approval of the new council are the Committee on Legal Professionals with Disabilities, Committee on Senior Lawyers, Committee on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Discrimination, Committee on Women in the Law and the Ethic Minority Relations Committee. State Bar staff estimates that $250,000 will be saved by consolidating the committees, which currently have a total of more than 60 members, into one council. “We’re encouraging members of the various committees to apply for the new council,” Sloan said. “We still want to hear their voices.”

Ashley concurred: “We want to make sure everyone has a voice at the table.”

Joan Haratani, president of the Bar Association of San Francisco and a member of the Pipeline Task Force, said that in an ideal world, she’d like to see the “good work of the committees” carried on through the committee system as it stands. But, she added, if budget constraints are such that one council needs to be created to carry on the committee work furthering diversity, that makes sense.

“There needs to be some formalized mechanism of making sure this issue doesn’t get lost,” Haratani said. “That’s very important and necessary and a laudable goal.”

The Pipeline Task Force created a baseline of statistics on numbers of attorneys of color, sexual orientation and gender that showed disproportionate numbers compared to their numbers in the population. The Task Force also developed an initial list of programs designed to direct promising young people into the legal profession and to support them at school (from kindergarten and beyond) and in the early stages of their careers.

One aim in creating the council, Ashley said, is to ensure continuance of the effort toward diversity no matter who is leading the bar, either at the level of board president or executive director. “It won’t be volunteer-driven or staff-driven,” she said, adding that a mission statement will make clear the goals to people who aren’t involved in the inauguration of the council.

According to the council proposal that will be presented to the board, members of the Council on Access & Fairness, who will be appointed by the State Bar’s Board of Governors, will reflect “the breadth of diversity of the Pipeline Project . . . Constituent interests currently represented by the five Access & Fairness committees will be subsumed into the new council.” The council will be the primary adviser to the board of governors on enhancing diversity opportunities and advancement within the legal profession.

With the council, “we don’t have to compartmentalize things. We can work together for the common good,” said Ashley.

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