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44th Street Notes

A Call to Action

Nov 1999

In the troubled, turbulent summer of 1963, after Governor George Wallace of Alabama threatened defiance of a federal court desegregation order and Medgar Evers was murdered, President Kennedy invited leaders of the Bar throughout the country to the White House and exhorted them to devote greater pro bono efforts to securing racial justice. The Bar responded immediately to that exhortation. The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law was formed that summer and has for the past 36 years enlisted law firms throughout the country to represent persons of color in combating discrimination in such areas as education, housing, voting and employment.

No one can deny that during the past three decades great and long overdue strides have been made by the Lawyers' Committee, its local affiliates in several cities and other civil rights advocates in curbing discriminatory policies and practices. It also, regrettably, cannot be denied that discrimination persists in the areas mentioned above and others such as police stop and frisk practices, zoning and the location of hazardous waste sites. Similarly, while the number of minority law students and minority lawyers has grown, the pace of growth has been painfully slow and the rates of retention and promotion disappointingly low. Only 2% of the partners in the nation's largest law firms are minorities. Diversity in law schools and the legal profession lags far behind diversity in the population at large.

Renewing the Call

And so it was time this summer to renew President Kennedy's 1963 call to the Bar, and President Clinton did so this July, inviting nearly 200 leading members of the private Bar, bar associations, civil rights advocates, corporate counsel and law school faculties to the White House, where he urged them to rededicate themselves (i) to increasing the number and stature of minority lawyers and (ii) to striving for racial justice both through traditional means, such as impact litigation, and in new ways, such as assisting small minority businesses in surmounting legal obstacles. All segments of the legal community who participated in the White House convocation have joined in a coalition, Lawyers for One America, committed to work in collaboration toward these objectives. They will report to the President a year hence the concrete steps that they have taken to respond to his call.

The Association of the Bar of the City of New York was one of only three geographically defined bar associations invited to the White House convocation (the others were the American Bar Association and the San Francisco Bar Association). That invitation was well merited, for this Association has long been committed to the objectives of Lawyers for One America and has done much to achieve them.

Statement of Goals

To foster diversity in the profession, the Association in 1991 adopted a statement of goals for recruitment and retention of minority lawyers, to which more than 150 law firms and corporate law departments subscribed. In December 1998, the Association strengthened and restated those goals (see back page). We have several additional programs that seek to promote diversity in the profession by, for example, making grants to minority law students who intern with our Civil Rights Committee or Community Outreach Law Program, arranging the summer placement of first-year minority students with law firms and corporate law departments and bringing young minority lawyers together to discuss success strategies. Our Committee on Recruitment and Retention of Lawyers has embarked on a four-year survey to ascertain, among other things, why minority lawyers do not progress through associate ranks in the same proportional rate as their majority peers.

The second mission of Lawyers for One America, furthering the goals of racial justice, is the aim of not only our Civil Rights Committee but also many other groups within the Association, including the Committee on Pro Bono and Legal Services (in urban areas like New York City poverty and racial injustice are inextricably related), the Capital Representation Committee and the Committee on Social Welfare Law, as well as City Bar Fund programs like the SHIELD Hotline and our divorce and homeless clinics, whose clients are overwhelmingly members of minority groups.

More That We Can and Must Do

There plainly is more that we can and must do. We should--and will--encourage our 21,000 members to support the minority law student scholarship program recently announced by President William Paul of the ABA. We must recruit experienced lawyers (both minority and non-minority) to establish personal mentoring relationships with younger minority lawyers. To further the goal of securing racial justice, we must engage Association committees to a greater extent, and I have asked each committee chair to discuss with their respective committee members potential initiatives toward this end. Traditional civil rights strategies, such as class action litigation, continue to be timely in many areas, but we must also undertake programs for non-litigators in law firms and in the corporate legal community, who can provide valuable legal advice to community development organizations, tenants seeking to rehabilitate deteriorated housing stock and small minority-owned businesses that cannot afford counsel.

This Association can be rightly proud of its efforts and accomplishments in the civil rights arena. But we must redouble those efforts, for on these issues we have (in Robert Frost's words) "promises to keep, and miles to go before we sleep."

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