When I enrolled in law school I took a step toward a major life goal. I also thought that my presence (and my women classmates) in this male-dominated profession would make such a difference that my daughter’s career path would be free from gender obstacles. Sadly, I was wrong. My daughter graduated from college last year and while the statistics show a dramatic change in the numbers of working women, and law school classes are now equally gender balanced, other statistics would show that the world has not changed very much at all.
Women constitute a much larger percentage of the profession, but a comparatively smaller percentage of managing partners in law firms. Despite a consistent commitment by leaders of the ABA, state, and local bar associations to the challenge of diversity, law school admissions of minority students is dropping.
Equally persistent is our seemingly utter failure to alter the negative perception of our citizens about the legal system and our profession. How much clearer could this equation be? Our profession, and the services we provide will be valued when our profession represents our society. When a citizen of any of the multitude of ethnicities present in America today can walk into a court or law office, look around and feel that the legal system is an institution reflective of they themselves and their families. Lawyers and judges, and law professors need to reflect the diversity of our nation. Any student in our country needs to believe that a career in the law, given the academic ability, is within the realm of possibility.
I have to believe we know these statements to be true. The question then, is what do we need to do to make the goal a reality? The Illinois Supreme Court took a dramatic step forward by creating the Commission on Professionalism. By Court rule, our Commission is tasked to encourage, support and deliver programs that will enhance the efforts of our profession to be more diverse, open and accessible. Twelve other states have created similar groups through their highest courts to work on this and other serious issues under the broad description of professionalism.
Our Commission is conducting a Conclave later this year to develop an action plan on diversity. Leaders of our legal community will convene to assess the most meaningful way to address this issue and coalesce around the resulting plan. We are excited about the potential impact this program promises.
In addition, important work must be done to fill the educational pipeline with a much more diverse group of law students if we are to change the makeup of our practicing bar. Firms need to make diversity a meaningful part of their business planning. We know this. And, to our credit we have seen some of this work being done. The bottom line, though, is this: each one of us, in ways large and small, must commit ourselves to the mission. The time for expecting these things to happen, just because, cannot and will not get us there.
Just as I learned that simply being a woman in a male dominated profession doesn’t advance the diversity cause, we need to make a personal and daily commitment to keep diversity on our personal to do list. Each of us has our own, unique but necessary part to play if meaningful change is to happen. We look forward to working with you.
1. Cheryl Niro is the Executive Director of the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism and a Past ISBA President.