Periodically at the Fix Studio where I work out, cyclists perform a 30-minute “threshold test” to measure average power output. It is the best predictor of athletic endurance performance. All that’s required is to bike as hard as you can possibly go for 30 minutes. It’s a painful test dreaded by all participants. The reason the studio regularly tests athletes this way is projected on a large screen in front of the cyclists: “If you don’t measure, you’re just guessing.” If you want to improve bike performance, you need to know exactly where you stand in terms of quantifiable power output and endurance. What’s true for endurance sports is also true at the MSBA. If we want to improve diversity and inclusion at the state bar, we must begin collecting additional demographic data from our members.
In 2012, following extensive study, a group of appointed members and nonmembers determined that the MSBA should elevate its commitment to diversity and inclusion. The group urged the MSBA to reorganize its efforts in this important area. In response, the MSBA hired its first director of diversity and inclusion, Danielle Shelton Walczak, and approved a three-year strategic plan for increased diversification and inclusion within all levels of the organization. A key element of that plan is a commitment to gather demographic data on gender, race, sexual orientation and disability from our 16,000 members.
For years the MSBA has asked members to provide demographic information such as their age, gender, and mailing address during the annual member registration. Starting this spring the MSBA will ask members to self-identify on their online member profiles in four additional areas: gender (male, female, transgender/gender non-conforming); race (Asian/Pacific Islander, Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino/Latina, Native American/Alaska Native, Middle Eastern, White/Caucasian), sexual orientation (heterosexual or straight, gay or lesbian, bisexual); and disability. Through the collection of this additional data, we hope to objectively identify whether there are disparities in the recruitment, retention, and advancement of historically underrepresented attorneys at the state bar.
Data Tells A Story
Why is the collection of this demographic information so important? First, the data helps the MSBA quantify disparities at the bar in the area of diversity, and provides concrete evidence to get leaders to address any inequities. With access to high quality data, bar leaders need not base decisions about perceived disparities on anecdote or conjecture. Systematic collection of data could provide foundational support of the existence of disparities, which is hard to ignore.
There is another reason the collection of demographic data is so important. It helps the bar see where lawyers are being left behind or excluded so we know where to target our resources. When data is systematically gathered and scientifically analyzed, it provides a wealth of information to bar leaders. For purposes of the legal profession, data regarding race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability has the potential to identify barriers to entry into the legal profession and for the advancement, or lack thereof, of protected classes in our legal community. This knowledge allows the state bar to direct its human and financial capital more effectively.
Finally, the collection of demographic data not only serves the legal community itself, but also persons who require legal services. It’s projected that “our region will be majority-minority by 2040” (Maya Rao, “Twin Cities Mayors Expand Their Networks; Denounce Racial Disparities,” Star Tribune, 4/12/2014). When attorneys are not reflective of the population they serve, it can create public distrust of our legal system. This adversely affects whether our system is seen as inherently just or not. The more diverse the legal workforce, the more it can effectively serve its clientele. Collecting data is the first step toward determining whether the profession is reflective of the population, and developing programs to ensure that the population is effectively served.
Collecting additional demographic information tells an important story about what we value as a bar association, according to Ms. Shelton Walczak: “We believe that numbers and statistics tell a story. They tell us the story of the beginning. They tell us the story of progress. Progress gives us the story about impact. However, the most important story numbers and statistics tell is about what we value. If there is little to no data on something, it’s fair to say that little to no value is associated with that something. Our organization values diversity internally and within the legal profession. Therefore, we care about the story the data tells us.”
At the Supreme Court
The MSBA’s effort to collect additional demographic data will be complemented by the Minnesota Supreme Court, which plans to begin collecting self-identification data on the annual on-line attorney registration form. The Court already requests gender data. Beginning this year it will also collect data on race and ethnicity. It is our hope that the Court will consider collecting data on sexual orientation and disability in the future after assessing the MSBA’s experience in these areas.
If we don’t measure, we’re just guessing. A first step for the MSBA to improving in the area of diversity is to quantify any disparities that exist at the bar and then set out to address those disparities. Only then can the state bar truly represent all
of its members and more closely meet its diversity mission “to promote and advocate for the diversification and inclusion of historically underrepresented attorneys in all areas of the legal profession and our organization.”
I hope you will take the time to answer the demographic questions in your member profile and during the annual member registration.