By Mark D. Killian
While the legal community in Miami-Dade County is likely the most diverse in the state, it can — at times — seem quite segregated as there are so many specialty bar options catering to different racial, gender, and practice area groups.
To try to help bridge that divide, the Miami-Dade Chapter of the Florida Association for Women Lawyers, the Cuban American Bar, and the Dade County Bar launched a Diversity and Inclusion Consortium Project to identify the unique challenges facing diverse lawyers in the community, as well as establish goals and objectives to increase the number of diverse lawyers in law firms and other areas of private practice.
To open that dialog, the organizing entities in May brought together leaders from the area’s many local bars for a Diversity Summit.
Miami-Dade FAWL President Kristy M. Johnson said while Miami-Dade County has “a ton” of voluntary bar organizations working to improve diversity — including CABA, the Puerto Rican Bar Association, the Gwen S. Cherry Black Women Lawyers Bar Association, the Wilkie D. Ferguson Bar Association, and the Muslim Bar Association, just to name a few — their efforts lack continuity.
“So the goal was to bring leaders of the organizations together to collaborate on common diversity goals that we can all help move forward to develop a diversity action plan and to get that dialog going,” Johnson said.
The $3,000 needed to put on the event came from a grant from The Florida Bar’s Special Committee on Diversity and Inclusion. Co-chaired by Board of Governors members Arnell Bryant-Willis and Dori Foster-Morales, the special committee was charged with developing a diversity grant program, which supports and promotes conferences, seminars, training, and dialog through efforts by local and specialty bar associations as part of the Bar’s expanded efforts to promote diversity at the local level.
Foster-Morales said the committee has had a good reaction to its efforts and “enthusiasm for the [grant] program.”
The Bar’s Special Committee on Diversity and Inclusion last year allocated $50,000 worth of grants to 30 applicants involving 39 voluntary bars. The program will have another $50,000 in grants to distribute in 2011-12 to voluntary bar associations with individual grants up to $1,500 and up to $3,000 to multiple voluntary bars working together on a project. Funding priority will be given to coalitions of local bar associations within circuits, districts, or geographic regions of the state. Bar associations are limited to one application/project per year.
Grants will be awarded to underwrite multi-hour, half-day, full-day, or multi-day diversity conferences designed to:
• Foster an inclusive environment in which lawyers, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or physical or mental disability are motivated to succeed professionally and contribute to the goals of their profession; and/or
• Increase knowledge and awareness of diversity and cultural competency; and/or
• Increase participation, retention, and representation in local and specialty voluntary bars; and/or
• Improve diversity in legal education, employment, the judiciary, and The Florida Bar.
“We’re going to focus on evaluating the grants and the seminars funded by the grants and how else The Florida Bar and the special committee can further the cause,” Foster-Morales said. “There’s still a lot of urgency out there about diversity and the lack of it.”
Foster-Morales said the panel will also look this year at helping diverse new lawyers who are having trouble finding jobs because of the economy.
“How do you help young lawyers who have no option but to set up a shingle and open an office?” Foster-Morales said. “We need to listen to all the people out there and do what’s best.”
“These grants are fantastic,” Johnson said.
More than 70 people attended the Dade County symposium May 20, which included a judicial panel and a panel of private practice attorneys, a keynote speaker, and roundtable discussions with local bar leaders. Johnson said the goal of each panel was to identify areas of leadership needed to advance diversity in the community.
The judicial panel, composed of Judge Jerald Bagley, Judge Betty Butchko, and Judge Peter Lopez, evaluated what judges could do to implement diversity in their courtrooms, particularly as it relates to the appointment of mediators, receivers, and trustees. The panel was moderated by CABA’s Victoria Mendez.
The private practice panel evaluated best practices for firms to embrace in order to improve diversity, focusing on ensuring diversity is executed after the initial hiring and continues through firm mentoring and practice development. This panel included Cesar Alvarez of Greenberg Traurig, Tiffani Lee of Holland & Knight, Corali Lopez-Castro of Kozyak Tropin Throckmorton, Jason Murray of Carlton Fields, and Eugene Stearns of Stearns Weaver. It was moderated by Steve Davis of the DCBA.
The keynote speaker was Dean Alex Acosta of Florida International School of Law, who addressed the ongoing local and national efforts and missteps to improve diversity in the profession.
Johnson said there were also roundtable discussions among the participants to begin talking about the establishment of a long-term plan to evaluate the progress of diversity in Miami-Dade County.
“This was the opening conversation,” said Johnson, noting the next step is to form a smaller consortium of people that will be tasked with developing an action plan.
“I think ultimately people want to work together,” Johnson said. “How that is going to happen still needs to be ironed out a little bit. The long-term project of working together still needs to be solidified, but I certainly think everybody is onboard.”
Miami Dade FAWL, CABA, and the DCBA plan to host another symposium in 2012 to announce the results of the efforts, as well as adjust the strategy going forward.
Other diversity events funded through the Bar’s diversity grant program this year include:
• The Tampa Bay and Central Florida Bankruptcy Bar Associations, which provided transportation for minority law students at FAMU’s College of Law to attend a panel discussion on insolvency law during the 2011 National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges 85th Annual Conference.
• The Clearwater Bar Association, which held a two-hour CLE diversity symposium following a monthly luncheon meeting. The seminar featured the Pinellas County Human Rights director as moderator and panel/audience discussions on diversity and inclusion.
• The Third Judicial Circuit Bar Association, its Young Lawyers Section, the Josiah T. Walls Bar Association, and the Third Circuit Association for Women Lawyers co-sponsored the seven-county North Florida area’s first diversity initiative, which included a CLE with a panel discussion to increase knowledge and awareness of diversity and cultural competency.
• The Virgil Hawkins Florida Chapter of the National Bar Association’s Townhall Meeting, during Black Caucus Week in Tallahassee, highlighted the importance of a diverse judiciary and explored ways to increase the numbers of minorities on the county, circuit, and federal benches.
• The Florida Muslim Bar Association provide a continuing education seminar for judges in the 15th, 17th, and 11th circuits on the unique cultural and religious practices of Muslim lawyers and litigants, with examples of actual problems attorneys and American Muslims have encountered in the court system.
The Bar’s Special Committee on Diversity and Inclusion will meet this month at the Orlando Annual Convention to review the reports submitted by the voluntary bars on the programs held and to set deadlines for 2011-12 applications.
More information about the diversity leadership grants can be found on the Bar website at www.floridabar.org/diversity.