Change Comes Slowly
By Douglas V. Van Dyk
Thank God we die. Our prejudices die when we die. So you say, 'Great! There is hope!' You might, on the other hand, be a bit more proactive. You might say, for example, that the Oregon bar, with its good sense of how to change things, should speed up the process. It could try to end subtle and overt discrimination within this profession. With its many agents of change, it might just be able to squash the awkward, the inadvertent, the stupid and the intentional things some folks do that hurt and divide people of different immutable characteristics. Surely the bar has the skill.
On Nov. 15, 2001, beginning at 8 a.m., at the Portland Hilton, lawyers from around the state will gather to design and drive a big stake through the heart of prejudice in the Oregon legal community. It's being called 'A Convocation on Equality.' It's a big word - convocation - because it's a big idea.
The convocation started with this statement of its mission:
'We envision an Oregon State Bar that has eliminated barriers to the practice of law for racial and ethnic minorities. We understand that such barriers may be subtle and difficult to remove. We also understand that removing them will require the sustained, organized effort of many lawyers. The purpose of the convocation on Equality is to identify the barriers, establish the best means of overcoming them and to organize toward accomplishing that end.'
The goal of the convocation is to identify and recommend adoption of 'best practices' for the OSB on four topics relevant to increasing opportunities for minority lawyers: large firm recruitment and retention; small firm recruitment and retention; mentoring; and networking. Some of Oregon's best lawyers have been meeting for the past year to identify the best practices. Each of the four groups addressed a 'Statement of the Problem and Purpose.' Here are some excerpts:
Large Firm Recruiting and Retention: 'Many large firms are struggling to diversify. Reasons appear to be several. . . . . Social relationships advance or limit opportunities within firms. Lawyers of color may suffer isolation due to awkwardness or inadvertence of white lawyers. White lawyers may be reluctant to offer criticism out of fear of being misunderstood. Developing a client base may be hampered without a social network in the community (and many lawyers of color come from outside the area). . . . Lawyers of color who survive the gauntlet of the first few years of practice are quite often recruited into other industries that also seek diversity.'
Small/Medium-Sized Firm Recruitment and Retention: 'Many small and mid-size firms provide the best opportunities for the Oregon bar to diversify. Such firms often value relevant skills differently than large firms, sometimes placing as much importance upon industry or business experience and social skills as upon the prospective lawyer's rank in class or relative strength of law school. Yet the small and medium sized firms often do not have the personnel or financial resources available to target and recruit lawyers of color. . . . .'
The Mentoring Committee: 'Successful mentoring relationships enhance opportunities for professional success. As a bar association, a clear view of what works and what does not work in this context may help the bar succeed in its efforts to attract and retain lawyers of color in Oregon. . . . .'
Networking Committee: 'Many lawyers of color attempting to establish a law practice in Oregon originate from outside the state. These lawyers may not have contacts and friends in the area who can help build the client base. Lawyers of color who come from within the state may also lack business or social contacts with people or businesses that can afford legal services. Lawyers who lack such social and business contacts may also develop a sense of personal isolation that may cause the lawyer to leave Oregon.'
What might be an example of best practices? The Networking Committee is considering a best practice aimed at regularly sponsoring social events with other professional and business associations (accountants, trade associations and the like) to create opportunities for minority lawyers to develop business leads and professional relationships. The Large Firm Recruiting and Retention Committee is considering this recommended best practice:
'Incorporate diversity goals into each firm's strategic plan and have management and partners participate in diversity training and discussions of issues of race.'
Is this just another example of being 'full of high sentence but a bit obtuse?' Maybe. But what does your cynical mind think will happen if the large firms actually adopt diversity goals, require annual reports under the goals and require that a certain percentage of firm lawyers participate each year in programs with in-depth discussions of race? These are among the strategies for implementation of the best practice quoted above.
Remember, change comes slowly.
These best practices that may well lead to a more diverse Oregon bar. If these and other practices are implemented, then maybe, just maybe, our noble and learned profession will have among its members noble and learned lawyers who communicate very well with (and on behalf of) persons of different backgrounds and experiences, both because our membership includes such persons, and because, unlike some cultures, our profession is quite at ease with the differences among us.
Planners anticipate that the lawyers and law firms in attendance will come out of the convocation having made commitments to take specific actions toward implementation of the best practices. There will be follow-up by bar staff and committee members to track the efforts at implementation. The goal is to make things change. Slowly, things will change.
And we don't have to wait until we die to make things change.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The author is a shareholder in the law firm of Jordan Schrader in Portland. His practice emphasizes construction law.