Conference Examines Diversity in the Legal Profession

Lawyers occupy a special place in society, as the representatives of the profession that represents the rights of the privileged, the underprivileged, the many, and the few. As such, they should understand better than most the meaning of the words “equal opportunity,” said panelists at “Race and Gender Diversity in the Legal Profession: What’s at Stake and What Will it Take?”, a conference sponsored by Hunton & Williams LLP and the Center for the Study of Race and Law Nov. 3 at the Law School. More work can be done in this area, said keynote speaker Robert Grey, a Hunton & Williams partner and the 2004-2005 president of the American Bar Association.

“It’s about the change in our profession. It’s about the leadership that we are now very proud of and that we embrace,” Grey said. “It is our system of justice that has to lead the way, in a demonstrated way, how diversity will be respected in this country, and as we look at our institutions, we have our own challenges.”

Grey noted that while there is work to be done, too much is not necessarily a good thing. “We have to be careful as we talk because there is this thing called diversity fatigue. What we do is we get emotional about it, it takes a lot of energy, and we run and we run and we run, and then we say, you know what, ‘I’m tired.’ I like women, I like African-Americans and people of other stripes, but I’ve got to practice law and do other things, so how do I maintain this level of energy and excitement about diversity?” 
Grey said that the answer to that question is easy, because it is about the image and the reputation and values of the legal profession and the country. “In 1940 and before it was about segregation. In 1950, after Brown, it was about desegregation. In 1960 it was about integration. In 1970 it was about affirmative action. In 1980 it was about diversity. In 1990 it was multiculturalism. And today, it is about us, making a united statement…as a culture and a community,” he said. “If we move the needle, it will be on our watch, that the changes that all have been working for during the last 50 years bear significant fruit.”

When he travels the world, Grey said, he sees that the eyes of the global legal community are on America. “There is an incredible amount of respect for lawyers and judges in this country,” Grey said of lawyers abroad, while noting that respect must be earned. “They see our system of being fair and providing support and protection for individuals and their rights as central for the reason why we are so highly respected as a country.”

Grey recently authored a chapter in an ABA book about famed African-American lawyer and civil rights pioneer Oliver Hill. “Growing up in Richmond and living in the shadow of Oliver Hill was one of the most important experiences of my life,” Grey said. “Hill is blind, he is in a wheelchair, he is 100 years old, and he calls me every week to find out what I’m doing to advance the cause of justice in America.”

As ABA President, Grey answered those calls by focusing his efforts on improving the American jury system. “Lawyers are the guardians of the Constitution. Lawyers represent the ability to question the actions of our government. Juries keep government honest,” Grey said.

Grey put together a special commission on the jury to study how it can be improved. He appointed Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to head the project, because throughout her career as a lawyer and judge she had led her community to significant advances for the American jury system, Grey noted. O’Connor was joined by Judith Kay, chief judge of the state of New York, as working chair. Together they brought forward 19 recommendations to improve the jury system that were adopted unanimously by the ABA House of Delegates. While it needs to be improved, Grey said that the jury system is the model for diversity.

“It is the most inclusive institution in our society. Every day, five million people get jury summonses, one million go to court for 80,000 jury trials, and they sit side by side, women and men, different racial compositions, ethnicity, religious backgrounds, and to do what—to work together, to try to achieve a common vision and common purpose under the law to satisfy the litigants who have come to have their dispute resolved before them. Every day, the institution of the American jury system represents the best of inclusion and diversity within our society.”
While the theme of the conference indicates that the legal profession needs to make strides in the area of diversity, Grey said that lawyers can be proud of much. “I am proud to be a lawyer because we make a difference. We are the consciousness of our society. We are going to set the tone for what this country sees as important to its contribution in a global society.” 
Beyond the speech from Grey, the conference included a panel discussion on what is at stake in diversity, featuring Eli Lilly general counsel Robert Armitage, Bank of America general counsel Timothy Mayopoulos, NYU law professor Cynthia Estlund, and Virginia law professor George Rutherglen. The afternoon featured a panel discussion on what it will take to improve in the area of diversity, with panelists Andrea Bear Field and Walfrido Martinez of Hunton & Williams, Virginia sociology professor Elizabeth Gorman, and Duke law professor James Coleman. Virginia professor Kim Forde-Mazrui, director of the Center for Study of Race and Law, provided opening and closing remarks to the day.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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