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Reflections on our reflection

By Jeff Bleich
President, State Bar of California

Jeff Bleich

In the State Bar’s board room, there’s a wall lined with a portrait of every past State Bar president. While no one portrait tells us much, the reflection of all of those portraits on one wall reveals a lot about where we have been as a profession and where we have yet to go. Most of what’s distinctive are matters of fashion — T.P. Wittshen and O.D. Hamlin probably wouldn’t have taken the nicknames “T.P.” and “O.D.” these days, and the presidents from the ’70s likely would have more tasteful eyewear. But one things stands out: although clothes, and hairstyles, and glasses, and photographic quality change, year after year, portrait after portrait remains of white men.   

You can’t look at that wall for long without wondering what the bar and what this profession lost decade after decade. All of the talented men and women who were excluded from practicing law, or from the bar, or from leadership because of their race, their gender, their orientation, their disability. Decade after decade, our profession was deprived of their talents because of a culture of narrow-mindedness and bigotry.

While the portraits in the last few rows change a little, it is only a little. Outside the building, on the sidewalks and in the stores and restaurants nearby, men and women of every race, ethnicity and physical disability are doing every sort of job. But when we go to meetings of lawyers — whether it is local bar meeting, or a court calendar, or to see the next class of bar members sworn in, our group looks different. We have not come close to reflecting the sort of diversity that exists everywhere else in our society. While members of other professions such as doctors, CPAs and civil engineers increasingly resemble the populations they serve, the legal profession does not. White males constitute only 44 percent of California’s population, yet they are 81 percent of the lawyers here. Despite all the talk about diversity, the trend is that the percentage of minority lawyers is either falling or rising at a slower pace relative to their population. 

Other professions have diversified faster not because those professions are more altruistic than ours. Partly, they’ve been more responsive to market pressures. CEOs of companies, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or anyone who runs a complex organization understands that in a competitive world — a flattening world — you’ll fall behind if senseless barriers inhibit the best and brightest of every race or gender or orientation or ethnicity from entering and remaining in that industry. The legal profession is insulated from some of that pressure because — unlike, say, medical treatments or the laws of physics — laws vary from state to state, and training in one state doesn’t necessarily translate to another. So lawyers are less mobile and less subject to competition from overseas or other states.

But other competitive pressures to diversify should be driving our profession to diversify — ones that go to our competence and our credibility. The job of a lawyer is as much about understanding people as it is understanding what is written in a book somewhere. Legal problems are blind to race or gender: they happen to all people regardless of their backgrounds and experiences. And juries, too, reflect all of our society, not just the part of society that has tended to produce lawyers. The public — whether litigants, witnesses, jurors or just taxpayers — depend upon a profession that draws from across the whole breadth of society. To serve this community at all levels, we need to be trained and to practice in an equally rich and diverse environment. It’s not just that eliminating arbitrary barriers will allow better lawyers into the profession; it is that all of us will practice better if our profession is in touch with the full range of human experience. 

This is also an issue that goes to our credibility. How can the public trust us to guard their constitutional right to equal opportunity for all, when in one of the most diverse states in our nation, the California bar remains overwhelmingly white and male? How can we expect them to believe we’ll protect their right to equal access when our own ranks do not reflect that access?

Until recently, it has been easier for the profession as a whole to make excuses than to find solutions. If you ask the firms why they have so few minorities, they say it is because there are so few minorities graduating from law schools. If you ask the law schools, they blame the colleges. And the colleges blame K-12. There is some truth to all of this, of course. At current rates, for example, 50 percent of African American and Latino 9th graders in San Francisco will not graduate from high school. Even fewer will go on to college. So the pipeline starts leaking in middle school, and by the time you reach the end of the pipe, there’s only a trickle. 

Yet it is not enough to simply look for excuses. When we have a problem in business or in our lives that keeps us from doing our job, we don’t just wait for something to happen, we fix it ourselves. In the past few years, many lawyers and local bar associations have stepped up to this challenge. Instead of standing at the end of the pipeline complaining about the lack of diversity flowing to us, they are out there trying to fix the pipeline where minority candidates leak out. The Bar Association of San Francisco, for example, has a sequence of programs that start in the middle schools and give children in low-income minority communities exposure to the legal system, summer jobs in law firms, training in the law academy, help getting into college and scholarships to law school when they graduate. A new program pioneered by public agencies, such as the California Public Utilities Commission, and private businesses like CalPERS seeks to take this effort statewide. 

The State Bar has a Web site listing best practices and other resources. Over the past year, law academies have sprung up in Los Angeles and other cities as well to give students in poor neighborhoods their first exposure to being a lawyer, find them summer jobs in law firms and provide volunteer lawyers to act as counselors to help them get into college. And now, through the California Bar Foundation, these young people can get $5,000 and $10,000 scholarships to help them attend law school once they graduate. 

We have a long way to go, but there are promising signs ahead. All three of the people who are running to be the State Bar president next year are exceptional women. The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized diversity in legal education as a compelling state interest. And while 50 years ago, Strom Thurmond ran for president based on a platform of using our laws to again subjugate African Americans, today one of the two candidates to be president of the United States is an African American lawyer. In short, the world is changing around us, and it will take all of our effort to reflect that change as a profession.

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