I am proud to be a member of the MSBA, because not only is it committed to fostering diversity within the legal community, it’s willing to look at its own efforts and acknowledge when they are not enough.
Last year, a work group of committed MSBA members undertook—at the Council’s request—an unflinching examination of the organization’s efforts in the area of diversity and offered a tough analysis: it wasn’t working well. At the heart of the group’s assessment was recognition that, to that time, the bulk of the MSBA’s work on diversity initiatives was volunteer-driven, albeit with excellent staff support from the MSBA itself. Like all attorneys, our members are busy people and there were times when the projects were hard for volunteers to manage. The group recommended that the Bar up its game in the area, expanding the staff capacity and devoting additional resources to the work.
This threw the ball into the Council’s court, and this spring, for the first time, the Council had an in-depth discussion of what it was, exactly, the MSBA was trying to achieve in the area of diversity, and where it wanted to have an impact. I’d been a member of the Diversity Committee for many years prior to being elected MSBA Secretary in 2010, and I was proud of the committee’s clear dedication to promoting programs and taking positions that advanced the diversity discussion. But to the best of my knowledge, it was the committee that drove the conversation—not the Council. In my experience, the organization’s leadership was supportive of the committee’s efforts. But even though the MSBA had approved a strategic plan in 2011 that identified diversity as a key area of organizational focus, our Council—our board of directors—had not, itself, fundamentally grappled with the central question of what it is we were trying to accomplish as a bar association. And one principle continues to rise to the top in these discussions: it’s crucial to have effective involvement by an organization’s leadership to maximize the chance of success.
At the end of the Council’s diversity-focused retreat in April, we found ourselves in the happy circumstance of having reached consensus, namely that the MSBA’s diversity efforts needed first and foremost to focus on the MSBA itself, promoting meaningful participation at all levels by attorneys of all backgrounds. We also recognized that many women lawyers, lawyers of color, LGBT lawyers, and others found more of a connection with specialized bar associations than with the MSBA, and that if our goal was to encourage greater diversity within the profession generally, it made sense to work to strengthen our relationships with these allied bar associations, where they desired it.
All of this made sense—but it also made the Council realize that some of our best-known diversity initiatives were not as well-suited to these focus areas as we had hoped. Our Minority Clerkship Program, for example, which is a program to connect law students of color with local legal employers during the summer between their first and second years of school, has been well-received. It serves law students, legal employers, and arguably law schools—and several of our members have invested time and passion in making it happen. While the Council recognized that some of these students could go on to join the MSBA or an affiliated minority bar association, it was also true that it could be years before that happened, if ever, and the link to the identified focus areas seemed attenuated. Certainly acknowledging that not all members would agree, the Council ultimately approved a 2013-14 budget that did not specifically dedicate funding to this program.
On the other hand, the Council broadly agreed with the assessment that it was time to ramp up our staffing in the area, and adopted the recommendation that we hire a full-time director of diversity and inclusion. This change does two things: first, it expands the hours committed, from part-time staff support to full-time, and second, it elevates that staff position from a “manager” level (a middle level in the staffing chart) to a “director” level (a higher level). This means that this person, whom we hope to have on board this fall as the Bar year gets underway in earnest, will actually be tasked with drafting and implementing a comprehensive plan to advance diversity in the areas the Council has identified as being of central importance, and assessing the success of these efforts. The change will also free up the previous diversity manager to provide critically needed support to sections. Finally, the Council expanded by 50 percent the programming budget the new director will have to allocate toward diversity initiatives this year.
Change is rarely easy, particularly when it involves, as it has here, decisions to rearrange staffing and redirect funding. Not all will be pleased with the shift in emphasis and programming. At the end of the day, however, with respect to diversity the MSBA will be investing more resources, at a higher level, and with a more focused sense of overall organizational direction, than it ever has before. I look forward to welcoming this new person to the staff this fall, and to seeing how they will be able to serve our members, and our profession, by expanding access to programming, participation, and leadership
to an ever-broader range of lawyers.