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Bar Organizations Make Diversity A Priority

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—The NJSBA Task Force on Diversity kicked off its first Specialty Bar Summit on Feb. 22 with active participation and dialogue from the associations in attendance and inspiring words from NJSBA past presidents Cynthia M. Jacob and Senior Judge Joseph H. Rodriguez of the U.S. District Court.

Jacob said that during her presidency, the Task Force on Diversity set goals for a specific number of judges and government officials to be appointed from diverse groups within a certain period of time. Currently, there are 95 women judges, 33 African-American judges, 15 Hispanic judges and two Asian-American judges in the state of New Jersey, so that 33 percent of the judges in the state are minorities or women.

“This is not enough, but a significant number now when you consider that the representation of these groups on the bench in 1980 were nonexistent,” said Jacob.

Reminding the audience to never underestimate the value of the dollar, Jacob stated that diversity is a necessity because “it is the economically appropriate thing to do. We are at the stage where we can demand diversity and we should.”

Finally, Jacob closed her remarks with a view to the future. “I hope that in the next 10 or 20 years, you have made diversity a necessity and that the word diversity disappears from our legal vocabulary and from our legal landscape. That instead, we have all the benefits that diversity bestows without our having to think for one second about it. When that happens, diversity will have become the normal and natural way of the world.”

Judge Rodriguez brought the judicial perspective to the program and in particular, a view of the legal profession as one of only four Hispanic attorneys who formed a legal association in South Jersey in 1973. What he found after asking himself many questions and talking it over with his dad, is that the particular issues of concern such as employment, housing, education, and health were issues of importance to those in need and they included all of the people in the city of Camden.

“You address those concerns, and you will be helping the concern of those in your community.” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez spoke about the community’s perception of justice and how the justice system should reflect society as whole.

“As was once said, while our nation is distinguished by our diversity, it has been defined by how we decide to deal with it. Reaching that goal of diversity is vital because the ability of the justice system to function effectively is largely a matter of credibility. Success in diversity breeds success in the acceptance of justice.”

Caucus participants at the Task Force on Diversity’s first Specialty Bar Summit on Feb. 22 came out of their sessions and into the summit plenary by vigorously discussing the importance of the sharing of information, collaboration and membership. The goals of the summit included: the identification of concerns within each specialty bar; the gathering of organizational support from its own leadership; the cataloging of areas requiring support from the New Jersey State Bar Association (NJSBA); the determination of concerns where specialty bars can assist one another; and the identification of various objectives requiring the commitment and support of the NJSBA. To that end, attendees brought to the table a wealth of ideas and suggestions that resulted in an exciting dialogue.

Summit chair Lourdes Santiago opened the plenary by saying the sessions were “very productive and worthwhile having, ” following her participation in the Hispanic Bar Association caucus. Mel Narol and Karol Corbin Walker, NJSBA first and second vice presidents, then directed questions to the panelists and the audience about their sessions and the results.

A discussion of how NJSBA membership can help attorney’s careers ensued when Lois Shafir, Women in the Profession Section chair, described the primary reason why people should join the NJSBA. “You are in the company of people who are informed, who make it a point of being informed, who offer programs, and who have discussions on the cutting-edge that will keep you on the cutting-edge of your practice area.”

Paula Dow, Minorities in the Profession Section chair, described how she came as a young attorney from another state to New Jersey, and how the section and NJSBA past president Cynthia Jacob got her involved. “I was appointed to the Judicial Administration Committee and it has been one of the most exciting experiences of my life,” she said. “The bar is looking for people and will do things for you if you’ll just take the time and become active in the bar. Look at some of the people here today and know that you too can ascend through active participation.”

Rafael Perez, NJSBA trustee and a Hispanic Bar Association (HBA) past president, stated that as the organization began to identify concerns, there were many areas of common ground found between the HBA and NJSBA. Because of this common ground, he saw the importance of getting HBA members involved in board positions within the NJSBA and by having a direct link, membership in the HBA would increase. “We’re trying to define our goals and mission, yet at the same time, collaborate with the state bar to make sure our members are getting the benefits of being members of both, and so that we are not doing duplicative things.”

Membership fees and benefits became the next focus topic. Panelists suggested waivers and reduced fees in consideration of the need to participate in the state, county and specialty bars. Also, the availability of credits would be helpful enabling members to be on lawyer referral lists. It was suggested that the state bar have a place on its website where county and specialty bar can communicate, such as a bulletin board. The ability of the state bar to foster communication among the groups was proposed by many panelists.

A better way to provide referrals to members of specialty bars was an important issue addressed by several participants. In particular, the costs involved with belonging to organizations that offer referrals and the difficulty of getting referrals because of cultural issues was discussed.

Leslie Adams, caucus coordinator for the Association of Black Women Lawyers (ABWL) said that in order to be on various referral lists, she had to join the Bergen County Bar Association, then the Essex County Bar Association, and then had to pay an additional fee on top of that. “As a solo practitioner, I think it’s very important that the state bar give some form of credit. I’m a member of the ABWL and a member of the NJSBA. I should be able to get credit with the Bergen Bar and be able to get on their referral list. I should be able to get on the Essex County Bar referral list and not have to join a million bar associations.”

Jae Im, vice president of the Asian-Pacific Lawyers Association addressed the current mechanism for referrals. “Our association gets referrals only when the client does not speak English,” he said. “Maybe specialty bars can get contacted for referrals, not just county bars.”

Cultural issues were brought to the table when Alexander Lee of the Asian-Pacific American Lawyers Association talked about referrals. Lee said that when he worked on a membership drive several years ago, he went through the Lawyers Diary page-by-page trying to find possible recruits. “My biggest problem is that I need to identify who my membership should be. It would be of great assistance if the NJSBA could help with that,” said Lee.

The event was cosponsored by the Asian-Pacific American Lawyers Association of New Jersey, the Association of Black Women Lawyers of New Jersey, the Garden State Bar and Hispanic Bar associations of New Jersey, the New Jersey Corporate Counsel Association and the New Jersey Women Lawyers Association. The NJSBA Minorities in the Profession and Women in the Profession section also participated.