Promoting Diversity in the Legal Profession

The Beacon Award for Diversity & Inclusion is right around the corner on October 14th, and we’re looking forward to what we know will be a spectacular event. Diversity has been a major priority of the BBA dating back to 1969, when President Haskell Cohn created a special committee to grant scholarships to minority students at the city’s six law schools. Since then, we have continued to add programs and initiatives to expand diversity and inclusion and develop a legal profession that more fully reflects the community it serves.

This year’s Beacon Award honoree is Governor Deval Patrick, a true champion of diversity. What you may not know is the extent of his successful efforts to increase the diversity of the Massachusetts judiciary by naming more women and minorities to the bench.

There are, in total, over 400 judicial seats in Massachusetts between the Supreme Judicial Court, the Court of Appeals, and the seven departments of the Trial Court. During the course of his time as Governor, Patrick made about 170 appointments to the bench – a full 40 percent of the state judiciary. Ultimately, nearly 50% of those 170 appointments have been women, while approximately 20% were members of minority groups.

One can readily see the impact of Governor Patrick’s appointments on the Supreme Judicial Court, which serves as a microcosm of the larger picture. When Governor Patrick took office in 2007, the Court had three female justices – including Chief Justice Margaret Marshall, the first woman to hold that position – and one person of color, then-Justice Roderick Ireland. Today, for the first time in history, the Court has a majority of female associate justices, and only the second time that there has been a majority of female justices in the court (in late 2000, Associate Justices Abrams, Cowin, and Sosman sat on the court while Chief Justice Margaret Marshall held that position). Through Governor Patrick’s appointments, Chief Justice Roderick Ireland became the first person of color to serve as Chief Justice; two persons of color are current Associate Justices; and the first openly gay Associate Justice sits on the bench.

These numbers reflect that Governor Patrick has been a trailblazer in this area. We are grateful for his efforts, and the people of the Commonwealth are served all the better for them.

Moving forward, we need to keep that spirit alive and apply it not just to the judiciary but also to the legal profession in general. While strides are being made in diversifying our state judges, the same is not true for the rest of Boston’s legal community. Our city is actually behind national averages in diversity statistics, particularly for minority groups: according to a story in the Boston Business Journal, only 3.8% of partners in Boston law firms were minorities, versus 7.1% nationwide.

I know we can do better, and believe that part of the solution is fostering inclusion and mentorship opportunities so that minority attorneys are encouraged to seek leadership positions in their professional roles and in the legal community. The BBA’s Diversity & Inclusion Section works hard to make this happen by partnering with six Massachusetts affinity bar associations on events and programs, holding its own programs about diversity and offering valuable advice from well-established attorneys, running the Group Mentoring Program every year, and encouraging minority law students to apply for the Judicial Internship Program.

But of course, progress is not made by just one organization, or even by a committed group of organizations. Change has to come at all levels and become a systemic effort. The percentage of minority associates in Boston has risen slightly from 14% in 2008 to 16% in 2014, and we hope that the legal community will come together to bolster that growth within their organizations and by supporting organizations that make diversity a part of their mission.

So as we celebrate Governor Patrick’s commitment to diversity, I urge you to reflect on the larger picture in Boston and consider ways that you can pledge your support to this issue. The numbers don’t lie: we have a long way to go and an uphill road to travel.  Despite the longstanding challenges inherent in diversifying the legal profession, I believe that our concerted efforts to educate ourselves and others about diversity, our participation in events that promote it, and our work to consciously develop and maintain inclusive professional environments will ultimately change the numbers for the better.