Member Groups

The Challenge
The newsletter of the ISBA’s Standing Committee on Racial and Ethnic Minorities and the Law

June 2010, vol. 20, no. 2

The groundbreaking Diversity Committee becomes an official Winnebago County Bar Association committee and will be accepting new members

The Winnebago County Bar Association has a new committee. It is entitled the Diversity Committee. The committee’s official purpose, as approved by the WCBA Board and proposed by the original group of local lawyers meeting to discuss diversity issues, is to help define the [Winnebago County Bar] Association’s commitment to diversity and to recommend and help implement steps toward achieving that commitment. The committee is actively seeking additional members. Among the items on the committee’s agenda will be the formulation of initiatives to reach out to minority members of the local bar and encourage a more diverse group of students to become lawyers.

Regular readers of The Lawyer may recall that the Honorable Eugene Doherty wrote an article for the October, 2009 issue entitled, “Pondering Diversity.” In that article, he discussed how a group of local lawyers had been meeting for several months to ponder the complex issue of diversity in the legal profession and work toward increasing the diversity of the bench and the bar locally. Members of that original committee included members of the judiciary, faculty members of Northern Illinois University Law School, and local attorneys interested in increasing the diversity of bar membership. Eventually, the group decided that the committee’s goals would be better served if the committee were made an official committee of the Winnebago County Bar Association. Then committee chair, the Honorable Eugene Doherty, proposed to current Winnebago County Bar Association President Kim Casey that the Diversity Committee become a Winnebago County Bar Association Committee. Ultimately, the Winnebago County Bar Association Board voted to approve the committee’s formation in April, 2010 after the originating seed committee approved a formal purpose for the proposed WCBA Diversity Committee.

Among the original committee’s achievements were successfully petitioning the Winnebago County Bar Association to waive its membership fees for attorneys in their first year of practice and reduce membership fees for second-year members to $50. The originating committee also urged the bar association to make a special effort to encourage minority and public interest law lawyers to attend bar association social functions. They also engaged in many hours of frank discussion about the complex issues surrounding the topic of diversity in the legal profession. The original members of the committee were instrumental in encouraging their firms to adapt more diversity-encouraging recruitment efforts. In one of their last acts before becoming a WCBA committee, the members of the original diversity committee also nominated Tamika Walker, a young, minority lawyer who was an active member of the group, to be officially nominated for appointment as an ISBA Diversity Leadership Institute-sponsored Leadership Fellow. The goal of the Leadership Institute is to increase the diversity of membership in the ranks of Illinois State Bar Association committees and leadership.

The WCBA Diversity Committee promises to be an action-oriented committee. Just recently, on May 1, 2010, Assistant Circuit Judge Patrick Yarbrough, a longstanding member of the original diversity group and a member of the newly formed WCBA Diversity Committee, took the initiative of sponsoring and co-hosting, a pizza dinner/legal career information session at the Capri restaurant in Rockford, with several minority students sponsored by RAMM who’d expressed interest in a legal career. Each student was given an ISBA-prepared pamphlet on how to become a lawyer. The four Diversity Committee members in attendance, including myself, each described their paths to a legal career to the students and fielded questions from the students about the practice of law and the academic preparation for law school. The students had numerous good questions about the practice of law.

The Diversity Committee’s new chairperson will be Barbara Huffman, who’s already answered the call to duty by chairing the most recent meeting of the committee members and co-hosting/organizing the Assistant Circuit Judge Yarbrough’s above-described pizza dinner for minority students interested in becoming lawyers. Ms. Huffman, who is also active in the Illinois State Bar Association’s Diversity Committee, has been active in local efforts to foster diversity in the bar through mentoring minority students and helping them prepare to enter the legal profession.

Membership in Winnebago County Bar Association committees like the Diversity Committee is not limited to bar association members. Hence, other interested parties can join. Some members of the original committee of attorneys discussing diversity issues will continue to be members of the new WCBA Diversity Committee, thus giving it continuity. However, there will be plenty of opportunities for new members to play an active role in the committee’s work.

The Diversity Committee will have considerable work to do in promoting diversity in the legal profession. There is ample evidence that there is a much lower level of diversity, broadly defined, among lawyers than among the population at large. This is, as many members of the legal profession across the country have concluded, somewhat troubling, because, in contrast, there is no shortage of minorities seeking legal help. Also, increasingly, American society has moved to embrace the call to greater diversity in the professions. Some of the original committee’s members, including NIU Law Professor David Taylor, have studied the dynamics of increasing the diversity of the legal profession in considerable depth.

Increasing the diversity of the bar and the judiciary is currently a topic of much debate in the ranks of bar associations nationwide. Numerous articles have also been written and statistical analyses done on the topic. Considerable evidence seems to point towards the conclusion that significantly greater diversity in the legal profession can be achieved but will not happen in the near future unless law schools and members of the bar and judiciary make a consistent effort to recruit and sustain the professional aspirations of would-be and entry-level minority group lawyers.

All those who would like to help the Winnebago County Bar Association define and act out its commitment to achieving greater diversity in the legal profession and judiciary are invited to join the newly formed Winnebago County Bar Association Diversity Committee during the coming membership year. ■