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Special Committee on Opportunity in the Practice of Law sets its path

Senior Editor Top Stories
Michael Tanner

Mike Tanner

Co-chaired by former Florida Bar and ABA presidents, the Special Committee on Opportunity in the Practice of Law is reviewing everything from barriers that keep women and minorities from advancing, to economic data that link diversity and profitability.

At an October 15 meeting, President Michael Tanner thanked committee members for their work on one of three major initiatives he announced in June.

“I’m very excited about this committee, passionate about these goals,” Tanner said.

Tanner formed the special committee at the same time he launched a comprehensive review of professionalism, and a review of the potential for a fully automated platform for the resolution of small-value civil claims.

The special committee’s mission is to study “ways to increase opportunities in employment, leadership, and career development in private law firms, corporate law departments, and government agencies, and increase meaningful economic participation in private law firms, for all Florida lawyers, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or any factor other than merit.”

Referring to the aphorism about catching more flies with honey, Tanner told the committee he wants it to develop voluntary procedures that employers will find too attractive to resist.

“I envisioned this as a committee that would come up with recommendations that would be so self-evidently good, and so self-evidently beneficial for employers, that they would want to adopt them,” he said. “Figure out what makes your proposals honey.”

Eugene Pettis

Eugene Pettis

Tanner pointed to an initiative championed by the special committee’s co-chair, Eugene Pettis.

A veteran Ft. Lauderdale attorney, Pettis championed the Wm. Reece Smith, Jr., Leadership Academy during his 2013 term.

The academy is a multi-session training program designed to help a diverse and inclusive group of lawyers become better leaders.

Each year, participants are selected from applications submitted to The Florida Bar to become academy fellows.

“This is a continuation with what we started with Gene’s leadership in the academy,” Tanner said. “Now what’s missing is the next phase.”

Pettis reminded subcommittee chairs that despite greater awareness and years of diversity initiatives, progress remains painfully slow.

The COVID-19 pandemic and its economic disruption may have even set the clock back, Pettis said.

“There may even be new issues that we have to deal with,” Pettis said. “I think this is timely, and we hope to get a feel today where you all are.”

Former Florida Bar President Michael Higer said the subcommittee he heads on implicit bias reviewed reams of studies that show the problem persists.

The subcommittee intends to go beyond highlighting figures and anecdotal accounts, Higer said.

“OK, it’s a problem, what can we do?” Higer said. “What’s the tool kit look like.”

Pettis said he wants the special committee to develop fresh ideas for addressing the problems.

“The conversations that we must stimulate are what’s going to get us there,” he said. “That’s why this is important.”

Co-Chair Hilarie Bass, founder and president of the Bass Institute for Diversity and Inclusion, said she agrees with Pettis that new approaches are needed.

“Obviously we’ve been dealing with these issues for 30 years,” she said.

Hillary Bass

Hillary Bass

Bass, who served as ABA president from 2017-2018, said traditional initiatives tended to be “feel good” — raising awareness, but not spurring action.

“Many of the [initiatives] that we tried really weren’t evidence-based,” she said. “Maybe their evaluation or hiring process is not as objective as they thought it was.”

There is a general agreement among upper-level managers that more needs to be done, she said.

“Something else is going on,” she said. “They really do want to get it right.”

West Palm Beach attorney Grasford Smith said the Economic Case for Diversity Subcommittee had little trouble finding economic studies that prove diverse firms enjoy greater financial success.

Smith mentioned a June 27 article by researchers Evan Parker and Yvonne Nath that describes a “diversity dividend” that yields higher law firm profits.

“Within the large-firm market, firms with higher shares of Asian, Black, Hispanic, and multiracial attorneys, (‘diverse attorneys’) are paying their partners higher average levels of compensation — at about a $260K premium for the firms with the highest diverse representation,” the article states.

A 2012 study that appeared in Harvard Business Review made another compelling case, Smith said.

The authors spent several years studying the decisions of thousands of venture capitalists and tens of thousands of investments.

They concluded that “the evidence is clear: Diversity significantly improves the financial performance on measures such as profitable investments at the individual portfolio-company level and overall fund returns.”

Smith said the corporate world recognizes the value of diversity, and some multi-nationals, such as Coca-Cola and HP, are rewarding and penalizing the law firms they engage based on their ability to meet diversity benchmarks.

The subcommittee will also make the case for diversity to the majority of Bar members who are solo and small-firm practitioners, Smith said.

The market Florida lawyers serve is changing, Smith said.

“If you hire diverse employees, they may have links to the community that you don’t have,” he said.

A Cultural Obstacles to Diversity Subcommittee identified real or perceived barriers that hinder firms, government agencies, and corporations from recruiting and retaining truly diverse teams, said Tampa attorney LaKisha M. Kinsey-Sallis.

The subcommittee compiled a list of contributing factors that range from overt racism and sexism to hiring entities that feel they do not have “awareness of or access to diverse candidates,” to a “perceived lack of qualified diverse applicants or assumptions those candidates will choose to go elsewhere.”

The subcommittee studied programs and initiatives that voluntary bar associations have pursued, Kinsey-Sallis said.

The list includes a Florida Association for Women Lawyers program on intersectionality to raise awareness for challenges faced by diverse lawyers, a “Woke at Work” program by the Gwenn S. Cherry Black Women Lawyers Association, and the “Good Guys” program initiated by the National Conference of Women Bar Associations that was implemented by the Miami-Dade Chapter of FAWL.

Some subcommittee members feel as though they are covering well-trod ground, Kinsey-Sallis said.

“Our issue is really just, we’re there already,” she said. “We’ve got to make it so.”

Special committee member Charlie Ann Scott Syprett said she understands how Kinsey-Sallis feels.

Syprett said members of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee that she chairs sometimes feel isolated from the rest of the Bar, as though “we’re this little island.”

“We don’t know where we fit in in terms of effective change right now,” she said.

One of the challenges, Pettis said, is that mandatory bars have limits to the types of advocacy they can pursue.

He said when he was creating the Leadership Academy, he was determined to implement a solution to long-identified challenges and was told many times it couldn’t be done.

“We know there are cultural obstacles out there, but we need to think about something that will take the old news, and really break through,” he said.

Meanwhile, Miami attorney Joni Armstrong Coffey said the toolkit subcommittee plans to assemble a type of desk reference or searchable PDF that firms can use as a practical guide to hire and promote diverse candidates.

If recent articles in mainstream media are any indication, employers are eager to experience the benefits of diversity, she said.

“The business world is catching on,” she said. “When you’re reading the economic benefits of diversity in the Wall Street Journal as well as the New York Times, it becomes something that Americans expect.”

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