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Bar Convention to highlight diversity

Managing Editor Regular News

Bar Convention to highlight diversity

Symposium to help firms ‘create the winning edge’

Mark D. Killian

Managing Editor

Society and the legal profession have become more sensitized to diversity issues over the past few years because both have become more diverse, and projections indicate that the trend will continue.

Against that backdrop, it is essential the Bar takes the lead in educating lawyers and firms about the benefits of employing those with different backgrounds and perspectives to serve Florida’s increasingly diverse population, according to Eugene Pettis, chair of the Bar’s 2008 Annual Diversity Symposium.

Pettis said the event — set for June 20 in conjunction with the Bar’s Annual Convention in Boca Raton — is about promoting the inclusion “of all sectors of our legal community,” including ethnic, gender, disability, and sexual orientation.

“The leadership of the Bar is raising the profile of this issue to encourage law firms as well as businesses to tap in to the legal excellence that we have throughout our community,” said Pettis, a member of the Board of Governors from Ft. Lauderdale.

“Over the first four years of the conference, the choir came to church and they are the only ones who heard the preaching,” Pettis said. “It was the people who felt they did not have opportunities that came to the symposium.”

This year, he said, the Bar is working to attract participants who run the legal spectrum, from solo practitioners to lawyers in mid-sized firms to CEOs from major firms to corporate representatives. To help make the symposium a more high profile event, it will be held at the Annual Convention — instead of by itself — in order to draw a broader, more inclusive demographic.

The event’s theme is “Diversity — Creating the Winning Edge.”

“This year will not just be preaching to the choir. We are going to take the message and put it as the center point of our convention,” Pettis said. “We are going to have in the room individuals that can assist us in making the changes a reality.”

The program will have its start in the annual luncheon sponsored by the Florida Association for Women Lawyers, the Bar’s Equal Opportunities Law Section, and the Virgil Hawkins Florida Chapter of the National Bar Association, and then continue into a 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. session.

“We’ll have a complete afternoon focus on the issue of diversity,” said Pettis, adding participants can expect a “healthy dialog” that will lead to understanding from corporate counsel talking about the types of things they are looking for, so participants can participate in that level of business.

Pettis said whether it’s litigation, transactions, or general legal representation, American legal consumers are demanding that law firms representing their interests are able to staff legal teams that reflect the diversity of the country.

Jason Murray, of Carlton Fields in Miami, can attest to that, noting that almost every request for proposal from Fortune 500 companies contains a diversity component.

“They will pose questions specifically regarding the diversity within your firm — your efforts to promote and enhance your diversity,” said Murray, co-chair of Carlton Fields’ Diversity Committee.

“They want to know what lawyers you intend to staff on matters, all kinds of stuff as it relates to you getting new business or expanding existing relationships.”

Murray said companies today believe they are better served by having diverse legal counsel working on their files, because they get more creative solutions and an overall better work product by gaining different perspectives and better ideas to solve their problems.

“The reality of the situation is that now you either diversify or you are going to go the way of the dinosaur,” Murray said. “As we deal with the global economy and the global marketplace and more of these global companies, they expect their legal counsel to relate to and address global concerns and different perspectives and different viewpoints from all across the world.”

Murray said firms are increasingly creating diversity committees to deal with minority retention and recruitment efforts. At his firm, the panel is developing overall policies and procedures for implanting diversity throughout the firm “from the mailroom to the corner office.” He said the firm works to create an atmosphere that is inclusive, promotes diversity, and identifies diverse talent.

Murray, 41, says he has seen a difference since he graduated law school in 1991. It wasn’t long ago, he said, when he walked into a firm, he was the only minority lawyer in sight. Now, it is not as unusual to see diverse lawyers and staffs.

Murray said more and more firms are actively seeking diverse legal talent and not relying on the old perception that minority lawyers are just not available.

“If you look for them and recruit them and really go after them, you can get them and they don’t have to leave South Florida or Florida in general and head to places like Atlanta or D.C.,” Murray said. “There are great opportunities here.”

Murray said more minorities also are moving into the ranks of partnerships and shareholders.

“I wish there was more progress, but I take comfort in the fact we are running in the right direction and people are making greater efforts to do the right thing,” Murray said.

Because so many who appear in Florida family courts do so pro se, 11th Circuit Judge Scott Bernstein, who currently sits in the family division, said judges are seeing Florida’s “incredible diversity” perhaps sooner than the average lawyer.

“But as the population gets more diverse — and it is getting more diverse in huge numbers very quickly — the market is going to drive the legal profession to respond to those needs and those issues,” said Bernstein, who chairs the Supreme Court Commission on Fairness and Diversity’s education subcommittee. “There is no question about it.”

That does not mean you have to have “black lawyers, Hispanic lawyers, Jamaican lawyers, Caribbean lawyers, or Korean lawyers,” he said, “but you do need to have lawyers sensitive to the issues that come up in those communities. There are times that having lawyers from those communities are important, but it is also important for people not in those communities to at least understand those issues.”

Bernstein said it’s easy — particularly in the legal profession — to discount your own responsibilities by saying, “Well, I’m fair, but they have a problem.”

He said lawyers need to own up to the fact that they have biases and prejudices just like everybody else.

“The issue is not to be unbiased. . . . The issue is recognizing those things exist and then work to level the playing field,” said Judge Bernstein, who will administer a short, fun, implicit association test to symposium participants designed by Harvard psychologists to reveal hidden biases. The test, he said, will uncover implicit associations Americans have with the roles of men and women in society, and it should help participants understand attitudes, biases, and stereotypes we share by virtue of the culture we were raised in.

“We all have more to learn and improve,” Bernstein said.

For more information about the symposium, contact the Bar’s Maria Simmons Johnson, at or (850) 561-5648.

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