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Diversity Leadership CouncilThe newsletter of the ISBA’s Diversity Leadership Council

June 2011, vol. 5, no. 1

Building diversity and inclusion through CLE and lawyer-to-lawyer mentoring

Today, more than ever, diversity and inclusion are integral to our legal profession and to the practice of law. Promoting diversity is not just a “feel-good” movement; there are compelling and important reasons why a diverse profession supports the effective administration of justice. The importance of diversity to our profession is reflected by the fact that the Illinois Supreme Court specifically delineated diversity in Rule 794, the Rule that sets forth the professional responsibility requirement of the minimum continuing legal education rules. In addition to traditional CLE courses, mentoring is an activity that may allow lawyers to more personally promote professionalism, including diversity and inclusion, among their colleagues, while earning CLE credit. Pursuant to recently-adopted Supreme Court Rule 795(d)(12), the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism now provides a vehicle for experienced attorneys to take a direct role in passing along these values within a CLE credit-approved lawyer-to-lawyer mentoring program.

The value of diversity within the legal profession is supported by at least three foundational rationales. First, lawyers and judges have a unique responsibility for sustaining a political system with broad participation by all of its citizens, therefore, a diverse bench and bar create greater trust in the mechanisms of government and in the rule of law. Second, attorneys’ corporate clients are rapidly responding to the needs of global customers, suppliers, and competitors by creating workforces comprised of many different backgrounds, perspectives, and skill sets, and thus culturally open and linguistically proficient lawyers are better able to serve their clients. Finally, those individuals with law degrees often possess the communication and interpersonal skills and the social networks to rise to civic leadership positions, so it is important that law school enrollment becomes more broadly inclusive.

Notably, the legal profession nationally is about 90% Caucasian, and this has been the trend for over a decade. These statistics are roughly the same in Illinois, where a recent Illinois State Bar Association survey shows that the attorney population in our state is about 60% male and 83% Caucasian. The same survey demonstrated that non-male, non-Caucasian respondents tended to respond with a lower level of satisfaction with the level of diversity and sensitivity in the practice of law in Illinois. (These survey results are similar to those of the survey the Commission on Professionalism took of Illinois lawyers at the outset of its operations in 2007.) As demographic shifts result in Caucasians becoming a racial and ethnic minority in the United States, the statistical lack of diversity among lawyers may exacerbate the dissatisfaction that non-Caucasian attorneys experience in the practice of law, further eroding professionalism within the bar. This is a result the Commission on Professionalism seeks to avoid, by promoting movement toward greater diversity and inclusion.

The Commission’s guidelines for approval of Professional Responsibility CLE encourage course topics such as exploring prejudices and biases, both personal and institutional, and developing strategies for changing behavior. Meeting the “diversity issues” requirement of Supreme Court Rule 794 may be achieved by coursework in a variety of substantive topics, including ethnic, gender, racial, and socioeconomic status; access to justice; institutional support for prejudice and bias in the education, employment, and retention of lawyers and judges; and responsibility for improving the administration of justice. These topics are integral to the relevance and impact of our profession in the increasingly global world.

In addition to traditional CLE programming, diversity and inclusion may be advanced through more personal one to one mentoring relationships. Now, thanks to the Illinois Supreme Court’s recent approval of a recommendation of the Commission on Professionalism, experienced attorneys supporting the development of new lawyers through an approved mentoring program may receive professional responsibility CLE credit under new Supreme Court Rule 795(d)(12), and activities around diversity and inclusion are a key component of the Commission’s approved mentoring plan.

Attorneys serving as mentors in an approved mentoring program have an opportunity to gain personal satisfaction from “giving back” to the profession, particularly if they were mentored in their own early years. Mentoring is a chance to provide new lawyers not with substantive legal advice, but rather with the benefit of experience and judgment gained from many years of practice. And there are practical reasons for mentoring beyond a sense of satisfaction or the receipt of CLE credit. Careful mentoring can help newer lawyers avoid the kinds of problems that may lead to problems for them or their clients. Mentoring can also help ensure retention of associates in a firm, resulting in a stronger pool of talent and lower human resource costs. Although informal mentoring has been occurring for years, the Commission’s structured program offers explicit guidance for professionalism related educational activities and an opportunity for both the mentor and the new lawyer to earn CLE credit. Significantly, with respect to diversity and inclusion, mentoring provides an opportunity for seasoned, experienced attorneys to share their personal insights and perceptions while inculcating these values with newer lawyers. As with the other important skill-building benefits of mentoring for new lawyers, mindfulness and the recognition of the value of diversity is a skill like any other, and it may often be best taught at a personal, one-to-one level.

A diverse and inclusive legal profession provides a firm foundation to our system of justice, which is why these issues have been elevated to a high level of importance in the continuing legal education of Illinois attorneys. Through lawyer-to-lawyer mentoring, attorneys can take an active role in strengthening the movement toward a more diverse and inclusive community of lawyers by directly influencing the next generation of attorneys. More information on the new mentoring CLE rule and guidance on how to conduct an approved mentoring program is found on our Web site at <www.ilsccp.org>. Please join our Commission in taking a role to build a more diverse and inclusive legal profession. ■

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The author gratefully acknowledges the contributions of Jason T. Vail in the research and writing of this article.


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