The commitment to diversity should be a badge worn every day
As the Peoria County Bar Association celebrated its 6th Annual Diversity Luncheon, I looked at the crowded room filled with more than 300 attendees including judges, ISBA representatives, school board members, students, and lawyers and felt proud that so many came out to support the commitment to diversity. But my celebratory mood dampened when I was also reminded of how easily the call and commitment to diversity can be overshadowed by a five-star event and the all-so-convenient excuse of the current economic downturn.
The challenges of promoting diversity in the legal profession can easily be lost in the excitement of an annual event featuring Anita Alvarez. She is a shinning example of a strong woman who disproved all the nay-sayers who said, “an Alvarez can’t be a Cook County State’s Attorney.” She overcame the challenges and became the first female minority attorney elected as the Cook County State’s Attorney. We can applaud the success of Anita Alvarez. Once the Luncheon ended and the patting of backs died down, I had a sinking feeling that the importance of diversifying our legal profession will be forgotten until next year when the commitment to diversity will be dusted off and celebrated again at the 7th Annual Diversity Luncheon.
Please don’t get me wrong, the Diversity Luncheon event has been one of the most well-attended and successful events for the Peoria County Bar Association. Indeed, many other bar associations such as the DuPage County Bar Association as well as the Champaign Bar Association have either replicated or are attempting to replicate the Luncheon. The success of the Annual Diversity Luncheon, however, may lead to complacency and a false feeling of accomplishment. If statistics are any indicators, we still have a long way to go.
Although the percentage of female students enrolled in law school has only slightly decreased, 0.1% (not statistically significant), the number of female students leaving law school before obtaining a J.D. has increased nearly 1.0% from the 2006-2007 academic year to the 2007-2008 academic year.1 More shockingly, although the number of minorities enrolled in law schools has increased, the number of minorities awarded J.D.s has decreased from 9,820 in the in the 2006-2007 academic year, to 9,631 in the 2007-2008 academic year.2
Once the J.D.s are obtained, women and minorities face even more daunting challenges in the workplace. In the average law firm, women of color account for about 11% of associates, but only 3% of non‐equity partners and only about 1.4 % of equity partners.3 Even when a woman achieves the level of a partner in a firm, she faces a startling pay gap. A recent survey conducted by the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) and the NAWL Foundation on retention and promotion of women show the disparity in pay for a female equity partner is $87,000 a year less than a male equity partner.4
Despite these statistics, the commitment to diversity falls victim to the all-so-convenient excuse of the economic downturn. For example, the Peoria County Bar Association’s Diversity Committee and the ISBA along with the assistance of the Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism, recently presented a seminar: “Professionalism in your Diverse Office: Fostering the Good Start”.5 The seminar was designed to facilitate discussion on case simulation through role-playing dialogues and follow-up questions. We invited law firms that signed the Diversity and Equal Opportunity Pledge. The law firms pledged to increase recruiting and retaining minority lawyers.6 Naturally, we believed they would be interested in learning how to foster a good start. The Diversity Committee members called the managing partners of the signatory law firms to invite them to the seminar. Many law firm partners cleared their throats and responded with the canned response something to do with “economic hard times.” Of the 28 law firms that signed the Diversity Pledge, only 10 representatives from the firms attended the seminar.
I thank the firms who not only signed the Pledge, but who actually spent the time to attend the seminar and made a step in the right direction to support diversity: Williams W.P. Atkins (Peoria County State’s Attorney’s office), Paul Burmeister (Husch Blackwell Sanders), Jami Webster Hall (DCFS), John Rhee (Hinshaw & Culbertsen), Art Kingery (Kingery, Durree, Wakeman & Ryan), Karl Kuppler (Hasselburg, Rock & Kuppler), Sonya Pasquini (Chicago Title Insurance Company), Randy Ray (City), Daniel Johns (Westervelt, Johnson, Nicoll & Keller), Deb Stegall (Heyl Royster Voelker & Allen), Maria Vertuno (Bradley University Pre-Law Program Director), Jerrod Williams (law clerk for Justice Mary McDade), Lisa Wilson (Prairie State Legal Services), and Jennifer Wolfe (Cassidy & Mueller). These participants were not there for a photo-op, there were there because of their every day commitment to diversity.
To these participants—the Peoria County Bar Association Diversity Committee,7 the ISBA Standing Committee on Racial and Ethnic Minorities and the Law, ISBA Standing Committee on Women and the Law, ISBA Standing Committee on , ISBA Committee on Disability, ISBA Human Rights Committee, and the ISBA Diversity Leadership Council— thank you. We still have a long way to go, but for those who have the courage to wear the badge of commitment to diversity every day, that journey becomes a little bit shorter. ■