California Bar Journal
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Opening doors of justice to everyone
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President, State Bar of California
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Ray MarshallRecently, I was privileged to give the commencement address at Whittier Law School in southern California. It was a special occasion for all of us. The unbridled joy and enthusiasm of the graduating class was especially rewarding to me.

For those of us who have been practicing a number of years, I think it is a good time to remember what motivated us to bury ourselves in law books for several years and to reflect on any words of advice that we might pass on to young lawyers. Be passionate for the law - that's the best advice I can give to our newest members of the profession.

Whether you have a passion for business, technology, the environment, education, real estate, sports, medicine, children, senior citizens or some other area, I would advise young lawyers to embrace a cause and take advantage of their special place in society to do some good in their own community. In my own case, civil rights has been my passion.

My father was in the Air Force and I grew up as a "military brat," spending my formative years traveling across the United States and Europe. It was a great life, and I had a chance to meet and get to know people from a variety of cultures. I gained an appreciation of the word "diversity" and learned how much in common we all have with each other. On a trip through the South to visit my grandparents, however, my family was denied sleeping and eating accommodations simply because we were black. It was an unforgettable experience. Those were the days of students marching for civil rights and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preaching the practice of equality in a country founded on that principle. Dr. King made a profound impact on me and to this day civil rights and equality of treatment remain passions of mine.

Two recent surveys conducted by the American Bar Association (ABA) underscore the fact that Dr. King's dream of equality remains illusory, not only in society as a whole, but also in the legal profession. One survey, "Perceptions of the U.S. Justice System," was released a few months ago and found that almost half of Americans polled believe that the justice system treats men and women differently. Even more believe that treatment is unequal among racial or ethnic groups or between wealthy and poor people. Fifty percent of the respondents surveyed believe police treat minorities differently than white people, and 47 percent said the same thing about our courts.

These differences are even more pronounced when the results are examined by subgroup.

Men are more likely and women less likely to agree that the system treats men and women equally; whites are more likely and non-whites are less likely to agree that the system treats different racial ethnic groups the same; and the poor and less educated are more likely to agree that the system treats people differently on the basis of socioeconomic status.

A second survey - and this one polled only lawyers - was conducted jointly by the ABA and its black attorney counterpart, the National Bar Association. That survey revealed the same equality perception problem within the legal profession: specifically, only 8 percent of the black lawyers responding believed that law firms are genuinely committed to diversity, and an astonishing 75 percent said that law firm efforts to achieve diversity were largely tokenism.

The response of white lawyers was the mirror opposite; 41 percent of white lawyers responding believed that law firms were genuinely committed to diversity, and only 27 percent thought law firm diversity efforts were largely tokenism.

Similarly, the survey reported great disparity between black and white lawyers' perceptions of the treatment of women of color: 66 percent of black lawyers believed that minority women were treated less favorably, whereas only about 11 percent of white lawyers shared that view.

Both ABA reports are consistent with the findings of past surveys conducted by various bar associations across the country, including my own local bar, the Bar Association of San Francisco.

What continues to stand out the most in these surveys is that white and minority attorneys still have fundamentally different views of reality when it comes to identifying both the scope and the root cause of the lack of diversity in the legal profession.

White attorneys interviewed generally believe that racial and ethnic diversity is an important but unrealized goal in their firms or corporate legal departments. However, they rarely attribute the relatively low numbers of minorities within their ranks to institutional problems of racism or discrimination. Rather, they generally point to what they believe to be neutral, external factors, including an inadequate pipeline of "qualified" minorities among law students and/or their own employees.

By contrast, in seeking the basis for the lack of diversity, minority attorneys point squarely to institutional factors. Minority attorneys largely acknowledge the advancements made since Brown v. Board of Education and applaud the substantial good faith efforts made by many legal employers, particularly in the areas of hiring and recruitment. They believe, however, that problems related to training, work assignment, evaluation, mentoring, business development and communication combine with subtle patterns of institutional bias to produce an often fatally inhospitable work environment for attorneys of color.

Whether you believe the problem is one of perception or one based on reality, I trust all of us would agree that it is a problem which must continue to be addressed. We live in a state and in a country which by every count will be home to more minority than white Americans in the new century. As this population shift continues at an ever increasing pace, it is imperative that all of our citizens have faith that the doors to justice are equally open to them and the rule of law will be applied equally to them without regard to their color, gender or position in society.