A Profession for All

A 150th Anniversary Feature

By Deborah Martin Owens, Executive Director, Office of Diversity and Inclusion

In 1990, the New York City Bar Association elected its first Black President, Conrad Harper, and in 1994, its first woman President, Barbara Paul Robinson. In 2018, its first Latinx President, Roger Juan Maldonado, was elected, and in 2019, its first woman of color, Sheila S. Boston, was nominated to be President. The first thing a visitor sees upon entering the City Bar is a wall of photos of the 22 members of the Association’s Executive Committee, approximately half of whom are from minority groups and half of whom are women.

While these milestones are cause for pride and celebration as we mark the City Bar’s 150th anniversary, we should acknowledge that diversity is an area in which the City Bar was not a leader for much of its history.

It’s not surprising that the first 200 members who signed the City Bar’s Call for Organization in 1870 were White males. But the first Black member was not admitted until 1929, and women were not eligible to join the Association until 1937. Other associations had to be created to fill this regrettable gap in the Association’s admissions policies at the time. We expect more from the leaders of the legal profession, based as it is on egalitarian principles of fairness and justice.

It’s really over the last generation or so that the City Bar has demonstrated a concerted commitment to throw its weight into diversifying the legal profession. In the 80s, the City Bar launched the Committee on Minorities in the Profession and the Committee to Enhance Professional Opportunities for Minorities, which was chaired by Cyrus Vance, Sr., and whose members were all top executives of 35 major law firms. In 2004, the Association launched its Office for Diversity and Inclusion to conceive and produce programs like the Associate Leadership Institute, a series of career-development trainings and networking opportunities for minority mid-level and senior associates.

A recent report by the City Bar’s Legal Education and Pipeline Task Force called “Sealing the Leaks: Recommendations to Diversify and Strengthen the Pipeline to the Legal Profession” has underscored the work that still needs to be done and inspired the Association to renew its commitment to the student pipeline. The City Bar has, since 1993, run a pioneering pipeline program, the Thurgood Marshall Summer Law Internship Program, to provide summer jobs at law firms, corporate law departments, and government law offices to public high school students. With complementary programs for college students, recent graduates, and first-year law students, the City Bar has followed students’ extraordinary journeys from high school, to college, to law school, to working lawyer and City Bar member.

The City Bar has also been a voice on policy issues related to diversity. In 1972, the Sex and Law Committee urged adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment, and then-Professor Ruth Bader Ginsburg moderated a symposium on “Discrimination Against Homosexuals.” More recently, when research showed that educational deficits can begin as early as age four, the City Bar urged the elimination of competitive admissions to elementary and middle schools in New York City. And the City Bar was a leader in advocating a recently-introduced, mandatory Continuing Legal Education category — Diversity, Inclusion and Elimination of Bias (D&I) — and has, through its programming and content, been introducing into the profession such concepts as “unconscious bias.”

Yes, the legal profession is still far from diverse enough, and there’s a long way to go. But, today, over 160 law firms and corporate legal departments have signed the City Bar’s Statement of Diversity Principles, affirming their commitment to diversity goals. They know diversity is good, and increasingly necessary, for business, and they know their efforts will be held to account by the bright and enlightened young recruits who represent their future. And until the legal profession is a true reflection of the population it serves, they will always have a partner in the New York City Bar Association.