I recently stumbled across four cassette tapes of a CLE entitled "Promoting Diversity and Eliminating Bias in the Legal Profession," presented in Seattle on September 12, 1996. After some digging, I found a rather dusty boom box and listened to the recordings.
I was curious to hear how attorneys spoke about race and diversity 19 years ago. Certainly some buzz words around diversity have changed. What was then referred to as "elimination of bias" in the legal profession is now replaced with the ideas of "inclusion," "cultural competence" and the elimination of unconscious bias.
Certainly the diversity of the legal profession has seen improvement. In 1996, the Washington Supreme Court included two women and one person of color. In contrast, today six women make up the majority of the justices, and there are two justices of color - Justice Mary Yu and Justice Steven Gonzalez.
Throughout the CLE, the speakers referenced racially charged current events of the time: the O.J. Simpson trial and the Rodney King riots. Attorneys, some of whom are still practicing in King County, shared personal stories about race, inclusion, diversity and bias. One talked about how she had observed a CLE panel in which the introduction for the only woman on the panel consisted of a comment on her appearance (noting that she looked too young to have been a judge for 20 years), while each of the male panelists were introduced by highlighting their career accomplishments. Former KCBA President and now federal Magistrate Mary Alice Theiler delivered an impassioned keynote speech in which she recognized that the collective will of the legal community would be necessary to create and maintain a diverse legal profession.
Judge Theiler discussed statistics and shared anecdotes from the Washington Supreme Court's Minority and Justice Commission and from the King County Bar Association's Task Force on Equality for Lesbians and Gays in the legal profession. Sadly, some of the statistics have not changed: women still earn just 70 percent of the income that men make.
Some of the anecdotes could have come from today. The task force reported that many gay and lesbian attorneys feel the need to hide their sexual orientation out of fear of reprisal. One speaker surveyed the audience to find out how many in the room had ever been stopped for a broken taillight or broken license plate light. He noted that only the people of color raised their hands.
As I listened to the CLE, I thought of Ferguson, of Charleston, of Baltimore and of the Black Lives Matter campaign. How should KCBA respond to these incidents? On a couple of occasions, participants in the name of Black Lives Matters have interrupted presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders while he was an invited speaker at public events, including a recent event in Seattle. On each occasion, he left the stage. Many in the Seattle audience were upset with the Black Lives Matters protesters; some noted that Sen. Sanders was a vocal supporter of the civil rights movement, that he "understood" the issues of racism, and that he is an ally who should be supported and not interrupted.
Often I hear people emphasize that "All Lives Matter" right after they say they support the Black Lives Matter movement. The Black Lives Matter movement puts blackness front and center and acknowledges that race in this country often means different treatment. Yet, by stating that "all lives matter" one may have the effect of erasing race - the very characteristic the movement is emphasizing. I also hear people talk about economic equality as a means to address racism. Again, the assertion that economic equality can correct institutional racism can have the effect of erasing race from the dialogue.
KCBA does have a history of addressing race. Judge Theiler was one of the founders of the Ethnic Diversity in the Legal Profession Committee, which focused on improving racial diversity. More recently, KCBA adopted a resolution calling for the abolition of the death penalty, calling out that it is often discriminatory in its implementation. In 2014, KCBA recognized Gov. Jay Inslee for his decision to place a moratorium on the death penalty, citing the disproportionate impact on minorities. Our Public Policy Committee is examining the impact of financial restitution requirements and may examine the role that race may play in our criminal justice system.
The attorneys who spoke at the CLE in 1996 about increasing diversity in the legal profession have likely evolved in their thinking about race and diversity. KCBA continues to evolve as we examine how to increase diversity in the legal profession. This year the KCBA trustees will participate in a strategic planning process and may have an opportunity to address these questions. Should we examine the early education system in King County and make recommendations about how to increase the pipeline for law school? How do we continue to make race a central focus of discussion as we discuss diversity in the legal profession?
The Gregoire Fellows is a new program at the University of Washington School of Law, with support from Microsoft, that will support African American and Latino law students. The program notes the importance of acknowledging that our law schools lack racial diversity and identifies systemic changes to promote diversity.
Attorneys are trained to see problems in their full context; to appreciate how one concept is both connected and separate from another. KCBA will not have the answers. But we certainly have the collective will to take the next incremental step to increase diversity in the legal profession.
Kim Tran is the president of the King County Bar Association. She is in-house counsel with Microsoft's Global Employment Law Group. She can be reached at 425-705-7609 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this column are her own and not those of her employer, Microsoft.