The newsletter of the ISBA’s Standing Committee on Women and the Law
Excellence and strength through diversity: The positive impact on the future of our profession
“Diversity is the one true thing we all have in common. Celebrate it every day.”
The legal profession has been a dynamic force in shaping the history of our nation. It is no surprise, therefore, that lawyers have a special place in our society as the protectors of the underprivileged and disenfranchised. We, as lawyers, have fought to protect fundamental liberties and to safeguard the inalienable rights of our citizens. We, as lawyers, have sworn to uphold a constitution which decries discrimination, even though, during past times, such a position could prove to be so unpopular that it placed those advocates in harm’s way. We, as lawyers, have battled to uphold the sacrosanct legal ideals upon which this county is based, such as “equal justice under law.” I am proud to be a lawyer and part of a profession that has such a rich history of standing up for what is right and making a positive difference in the lives of our communities and our citizens each and every day.
Indeed, our profession is one that touches virtually all citizens at some point in their lives. From making out a will, to buying a home, to running a small business, legal services affect many aspects of our day-to-day existence. Accordingly, it is of utmost importance that the legal profession is—and is also perceived to be—representative of those individuals it serves. Lawyers are the link which connects members of society with the rule of law. We help our clients—as well as our communities—understand not only legal principles, but also the broader workings of our system of justice. The trust and confidence placed in our profession is in danger of being undermined, however, if certain groups in our society perceive that their members are precluded from aspiring to careers in the law or are prevented from progressing within their legal careers. Increasing diversity within the legal profession, therefore, not only contributes significantly to the quality of the profession, but also serves to enhance the public’s confidence in, and respect for, the legal system.
As members of the legal profession, it is our duty and obligation to assume the lead in assuring that there is gender, racial, ethnic and sexual orientation diversity within our ranks.
Recent studies of this issue reveal that there is cause for concern. For example, surveys conducted by the American Bar Association have shown that a great number of our colleagues and our citizens are troubled by issues of fairness and equality within the legal system. Significantly, this perception exists as our society is becoming rapidly more diverse. Although minorities currently account for roughly 30% of our population, it is projected that this figure will increase to over 50% within the next 35 to 50 years. In addition, women account for approximately 50% of the population. Against this backdrop, it is telling that the legal profession remains 90% white, with 70% of that group being male. Because the makeup of the legal profession is disproportionate to the population, perceptions may arise that our profession is out of touch with the very communities we aspire to serve. Such perceptions, in turn, may foster distrust and lack of confidence in our system of justice, grounded in a belief that there is little understanding of divergent backgrounds and perspectives.
Therefore, it is up to us—both as individuals and as an organization— to champion a more diverse profession which is reflective of our society at large. I am proud to say that the ISBA has been at the forefront of efforts to improve diversity in the legal arena and to make real and lasting progress. Three examples of the numerous ways in which the ISBA has worked to achieve this goal is by forming the Standing Committee on Minority and Women Participation, the Standing Committee on Women and the Law, and, most recently, the Standing Committee on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. Each of these groups have committed their efforts to ensure that our bar association—as well as the community-at-large—will benefit from the richness of the varied backgrounds, experiences and perspectives of their dedicated members. As a result of their commitment to diversity and the elimination of discrimination, they have raised awareness of issues of critical importance which otherwise might not be addressed absent their tireless endeavors.
This bar year, these groups have established a particularly impressive track record of presenting programs that bring these issues into the forefront of discussion. I think back to the ISBA Mid-Year meeting and the program, “Diversity Roundtable: Pipeline to the Profession,” which was spearheaded by the Minority and Women Participation Committee. This event was conceived as a way to address a recent report by the American Bar Association which found that the educational pipeline for minority students into the legal profession may be “riddled with leaks,” resulting in a loss of “significant numbers of potential law students and future legal scholars and practitioners of color at every point along the pipeline continuum.” Upon hearing these disturbing findings, the Committee went into high gear to present a timely program intended to highlight this issue and explore a wide variety of proposals and ways that the ISBA could help implement initiatives throughout the state to combat this problem. I will always remember the great enthusiasm among the Roundtable participants—who represented a broad cross-section of attorneys, educators and community leaders—to find ways to encourage and assist minority students in choosing law as a career.
I also think back to January, when the Women and the Law committee presented a program, co-sponsored with the Minority and Women Participation Committee, which shed light on “The Secret World of Human Trafficking” with insight from a blue-ribbon faculty including four speakers from Washington D.C. This stellar seminar not only raised awareness of a critical and disturbing issue which uniquely affects women and children, but also explored ways in which this blight on our society can be put to an end. The Women and the Law Committee, again with the co-sponsorship of the Minority and Women Participation Committee and the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Committee, has also coordinated a “Hot Topics in Domestic Violence” program which has been regularly presented in the Chicago area and downstate. This program provides practitioners with a comprehensive overview not only of the substantive law but also of the practical information needed when dealing with cases of domestic violence.
These are only a few highlights of the important work done by these groups. I commend the leadership of the Minority and Women Participation Committee—under Chair Alice Noble-Allgire, Vice-Chair Andrew Fox and Secretary Jennifer Shaw—as well as of the Women and the Law Committee —under chair Claire Manning, Vice-Chair Sharon Eiseman, and Secretary Lynn Grayson—and also of the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Committee—under Chair Richard Wilson, Vice-Chair Jennifer Shaw, and Secretary Michael Goldberg—for being catalysts of positive change. Through the vision of these leaders and the hard work of the dedicated committee members, these groups have truly made a difference in raising diverse voices and ensuring that they are heard.
On the occasion of the publication of this special newsletter, let us reaffirm our commitment to assuring and encouraging diversity in the legal profession. Although much progress has been made, barriers based upon gender, ethnicity, race and sexual orientation still remain when members of these groups attempt to enter, or to progress within, the legal profession. Those of us who are fortunate to have leadership roles within the ISBA or in other organizations have the opportunity—and also the obligation—to spark enthusiasm and provide encouragement not only among our diverse colleagues, but also with respect to the community at large. Our challenge is to pave the way for all lawyers to pursue excellence in the profession with vision and tolerance. Current ISBA President Irene Bahr has risen to this challenge and done a wonderful job this year in reaching out to diverse members of the profession to encourage their involvement in our organization. Through her thoughtful appointment process, the organization’s sections and committees have become more diverse and reflective of the legal community. It is no surprise that, as only the 3rd woman to hold the position of President of the ISBA in 130 years, President Bahr is truly sensitive to this issue and has worked very hard to make a positive impact. ISBA President-Elect Joseph Bisceglia has also expressed a sincere commitment to diversity and, no doubt, will continue to make great strides in this arena.
Looking forward, the ISBA will continue to be in the vanguard of promoting diversity within our profession. It is my hope that we can continue to build upon the strong foundation laid by the “educational pipeline” project to look beyond the law school door and encourage minority students early on to view a career in law as a viable and promising option. Through continued cross-collaborative discussion with educators, members of the bench and bar, and community leaders, we can work to encourage access to the profession by these students. Along these lines, we should strive to assist local minority and women student organizations in sponsoring panel presentations highlighting prominent minority and women attorneys willing to provide encouragement and career advice to students.
It is also my hope that we continue to strengthen our partnership with the ethnic and minority bar associations with respect to diversity efforts. It is by engaging in a regular dialogue with these organizations that we can target areas of concern and work together toward achieving a solution. Communication could be enhanced between the ISBA and these organizations by considering the creation of a diversity column in ISBA general-circulation publications such as the Bar News or the Bar Journal as a means of highlighting our diversity efforts on a regular basis and serving as an avenue of outreach to diverse attorneys. Similarly, a diversity Web page on the ISBA Web site devoted to these issues would be another step in enhancing communication and evidencing our commitment to this important goal.
Finally, it is my hope that we will see increased diversity within not only the ranks of ISBA membership, but also within ISBA leadership. In the past, the Women and the Law Committee presented a panel discussion entitled “How to Get Elected to ISBA Offices” in which President Irene Bahr, past President Thomas Clancy and myself participated. This session was intended to demystify the ISBA election process and to encourage women and minority members to consider running for ISBA leadership positions. I encourage the committee to make this type of program an annual event, occurring in the Fall, as a means of reminding and inspiring members to consider becoming more involved in the leadership of our organization. I also encourage all reading this newsletter to become more active within this wonderful organization, and do not hesitate to aspire to future leadership positions. The ISBA already provides a wealth of resources and information, a network of legal contacts and lifelong friendships as a result of participation. Yet, it is through encouraging diversity that we can become an even stronger association, and the ISBA will be the better for it! Please feel free to contact me at any time (email@example.com) with any questions or thoughts you may have.
The eloquent words of Illinois’ most respected lawyer, Abraham Lincoln, resound with clear truth and serve to perfectly sum up this discussion: “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.” Embracing and encouraging diversity is “right,” and it is our duty to do so. The future of our profession and our system of justice depends upon it.