|Recently, 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
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
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
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.