By Jan Pudlow
As president-elect of The Florida Bar, Gene Pettis will make the next 500 or so committee appointments, and he wants to make sure he has a diverse bunch of lawyers from which to choose.
So he is launching the “Get Involved” campaign.
He is asking voluntary bars to help vet and name candidates for inclusion on the Bar’s 68 standing committees, plus opportunities to serve on special committees, grievance committees, and the unlicensed practice of law circuit committees.
“I would love to see it where we are broadening and deepening our pool, with organizations reaching within their own sector, vetting their own members, and encouraging their young, older, and more experienced lawyers to get engaged in every aspect of the Bar,” Pettis told those gathered at the Special Committee on Diversity and Inclusion at the Bar’s Midyear Meeting on September 20.
Beginning December 1 until the deadline of January 15, 2013, committee preference forms will be available on the Bar’s website: floridabar.org.
“We’re begging for involvement of diverse lawyers,” Pettis said. “Certainly, we can create a pathway for more diverse members to get engaged.”
Committee member Larry Dean Smith also serves on the Civil Procedure Rules Committee, calling it “one of the most prestigious committees sought after in the Bar,” but he said he was disappointed by the lack of diversity he saw when he attended that committee at the Midyear Meeting.
“Eleven percent of the attendees were women. There were virtually no attorneys of color — man or woman — that were in attendance. I don’t think anybody can appoint someone who doesn’t volunteer, and even if they volunteer, they have to ask them to show up and be counted,” said Smith, an openly gay lawyer who has spoken on the topic at Bar events.
“Obviously, everyone wasn’t there in person, but it was a little surprising to me, that the lack of representation by diverse attorneys was so obvious in the room, with such an extraordinarily important committee in the work of the Bar.”
What’s not so obvious, said Bar President Gwynne Young, is looking at a name on a piece of paper and knowing whether that person is part of a diverse group within the 93,895 members of the entire Bar.
“One of the issues with committee appointments is self-identification,” Young said.
“The Business Law Section Diversity Committee had made a request to us that they’re interested in getting some data so, as they do their diversity effort, they can see how they have progressed. Part of the problem is for us to have data on people, they have to identify that on their Bar [fee statement]. You would be amazed at how few people report whether they are in any kind of diverse group.”
As Young details in her President’s Page in the November Bar Journal: “One objective of the Bar’s strategic plan is to encourage and promote diversity and inclusion in all aspects of the legal profession, legal education, and in the justice system, affirming commitment toward a diverse and inclusive environment with equal access and equal opportunity for all. The Bar’s focus on inclusion goes far beyond ethnicity and race to also encompass practice area and geographic diversity; sole practitioners; women; persons with disabilities; and the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community.”
When he was president of the Palm Beach County Bar Association, Greg Coleman said, he met with every voluntary bar president and invited them to get more involved locally and at the statewide level.
“There was a great deal of resistance from certain voluntary bars that said, ‘Look, we are a group of our own type, and we are working together to move in a direction. We really have no desire to reach out right now.’ Some would, but certain of these bars did not want to. I think it is more of a societal problem, but it’s something this committee can deal with,” Coleman said.
It wasn’t just minority bars, Coleman said, but criminal practice lawyers, who told him, “‘Hey, we really don’t want anything to do with these bigger organizations. We have our agenda and we’re moving our agenda forward.’ We need to find a way to get the young folks who are members of these voluntary bars and get them engaged.”
Pettis said “one of the amazing things” he observed during his seven years as a student at the University of Florida was watching how the sorority and fraternity system worked: Freshmen were directed to student government positions on a committee; in their sophomore year, they become assistants; and as juniors they served as chairs.
“They have a way of integrating their members into all positions,” Pettis said. “We need to look at involvement in the Bar similarly. . . .The organizations represented by people around this table must do a better job of giving value added to our members by directing them, guiding them, educating them why it is important to get involved at the entry level, so that they will become the leaders of tomorrow, as opposed to letting them get 15 years in the practice and then trying to make a leader.”
Bonita Jones Peabody, a black member of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee, is also a member of the Bar’s Legal Needs of Children Committee, and a member of four Bar sections: Criminal Law, Elder Law, Government Lawyer, and Trial Lawyers.
But she wasn’t always so involved in the Bar.
“I know being a minority myself, that for me and for many of us in the age group I am now, we didn’t get involved in the Bar initially,” Peabody said.
She urged that the Bar’s inclusion effort bring in seasoned lawyers, too, not just young lawyers.
“Because, otherwise, you are going to leave out a whole generation of ideas and talents of people who did not get involved at the beginning,” Peabody said.
“They’ve been in practice for 15 or better years, but never sought out any of the opportunities in the Bar because it was a scary kind of thing to become involved with something that you feel you are a minority, and there’s just a few of you, and you are not moving in that direction or even in that mindset.”
“Bonita, that’s an excellent point, but let me tell you where it is going to come into play,” Pettis responded, explaining how organizations, such as the Gwen Cherry Black Women Lawyers Association, will bring the names of potential committee appointees to him.
“If they are older individuals that didn’t have the opportunity earlier, if they are young people just starting, it should be the whole gamut. And you are going to bring them to us and say: ‘Here is who we are recommending for these various positions. We’ve vetted them. They’re ready. Their applications are ready to go.’”