The Florida Bar

Florida Bar Journal

Diversity’s Continuing Challenges

President's Page

When former U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Joseph Hatchett first came to Florida in 1959, there were fewer than two dozen black lawyers forced to practice law in segregated courtrooms.

When former Florida Supreme Court Justice Leander Shaw took the bar exam in 1960 at a Miami hotel, he was not allowed to eat lunch with the other white students.

We’ve heard these historical anecdotes before, and we shake our heads at Florida’s shameful past mired in the Deep South. But our laws and societal attitudes have corrected those past injustices. We’ve fixed the problem in the legal profession. Time to move on, right?

No. It’s almost 2006, and we’re not there yet.

Not when you consider that the best statistics gathered by your (see, I am using “your” again) Florida Bar show that our profession, right now, is still 86 percent white and 69 percent male. Only 4 percent of Florida’s lawyers are African American, and 8 percent are Hispanic.

Yet we represent clients in a state that is so much more diverse, with 65.4 percent whites, 14.6 percent African Americans, 16.8 percent Hispanics, and nearly half-and-half male and female (with 51.2 percent males).

We have to do better to nurture a legal profession that reflects the communities we serve. The bottom line is that it is simply the right thing to do as members of a profession that values equal justice under law. If you need a reason beyond that, it’s the right thing to do for your bottom line.

Diversity directly affects your profit margin. If you cannot speak potential clients’ language and understand their culture, you miss out on those clients. More and more, clients are not only looking at statistics, but at the staff handling their legal matters. A diverse workforce gives you access to information, varied perspectives and business opportunities. It’s just good business.

We now find ourselves in a new time tackling an old problem. As articulated in the 2004 final report of the Bar’s Diversity in the Legal Profession Symposium: “Diversity is the inclusion of differences that include gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and physical and mental disabilities.” That symposium set the goal of a Florida legal profession that will accurately reflect the makeup of society within 10 years.

So, what can The Florida Bar do to increase diversity in the profession?

We have been grappling with that question and we are taking action that must be viewed as a continuing effort.

I would like to have more minority lawyers apply to serve on Bar committees. I am pleased to report that the Bar received a record number of women and minority applications for my term as president, more than 600 from the previous year, but it’s still not good enough. The 2005 Bar committee membership is 83 percent white, 6 percent African American, 9 percent Hispanic, and 67 percent male.

We must do a better job bringing minorities to the table where important decisions are made about the practice of law in Florida. We will continue to aggressively provide information and reminders about the committee appointment process and deadlines, encourage all voluntary bar leaders to spread the word to their members, and encourage law schools to expand their diversity outreach efforts.

We strongly encourage minority participation in our judicial nominating commissions and on the bench. On October 5, an early notice was sent to voluntary bar associations informing them of the revised JNC appointment schedule and deadlines for making applications.

The Equal Opportunities Law Section is planning the Third Annual Diversity Symposium, to be held April 27-28 at the Florida A&M College of Law in Orlando. Please make plans to attend.

Sometimes, fostering diversity in our profession is as simple as offering encouragement to a minority law student. I recently attended October’s Minority Mentoring Picnic, created by Miami lawyer John Kozyak. At least 300 minority law students from eight law schools came to the picnic in Hialeah to find a mentor, and they were welcomed by 50 judges and 450 lawyers in a remarkable bonding experience.

Everyone must have a stake in the process. Everybody must be included. And, we, as Florida lawyers, must provide those opportunities, whether it’s at a barbecue, in the boardroom, or here at the Bar.