MBA launches Task Force on Diversity

Issue February 2006 By Bill Archambeault

The MBA Task Force on Diversity was launched last month as part of a long-term effort to diversify the makeup of the legal community, the judiciary and the Massachusetts Bar Association's leadership.

The group met for the first time on Jan. 11 and began organizing teams, which will be made up of an MBA officer, a judge and a minority MBA member. In all, six teams will speak at colleges and inner-city high schools about the need for greater diversity in the legal profession.

The initial goal is to recruit team members over the next month and have the teams ready to make short presentations to students on or around Law Day on May 1. Pairings of MBA officers and minority members would also continue on a more casual basis.

"It's both a short and long-term partnering project," said MBA Vice President Valerie A. Yarashus who will co-chair the group with a minority member. "The goal is to get more minority lawyers to enter the profession and bring them into the MBA's membership and leadership."

MBA President Warren Fitzgerald set a goal at the start of his 2005-2006 term in September of increasing the MBA's diversity. As part of that goal, Fitzgerald has said he would also like to increase membership among younger lawyers and women, including those women who may have put their legal career on hold during pregnancy.

Fitzgerald credited Yarashus with raising the issue of improving the MBA's diversity relative to ethnicity, race and sexual orientation.

"We are well aware of the under-representation of minority members within the profession, and that is reflected by the number of minority members in our association," Fitzgerald said. "The task force is the start of a long-term effort to increase interest in the profession by minority students, participation in the profession by minority professionals and increased membership by minority attorneys in the bar association."

Yarashus said she approached Fitzgerald about leading the MBA's effort, which she sees as a multi-year challenge, after noticing how few minorities were at MBA events.

"I looked around the room and noticed the dearth of people of color and said to Warren that I was interested in working with him," she said. "It's something I had been thinking about for a while."

Yarashus discussed ways of working with existing minority bar associations to make progress. There has been an increase in the number of young, minority lawyers, she said, and they should be playing a more active role in leading the MBA.

Robert W. Harnais, of the Law Offices of Robert W. Harnais, Attorney at Law in Quincy and the 2004-2005 president of the Massachusetts Association of Hispanic Attorneys, noted that there are only eight Hispanic judges in Massachusetts.

"My goal when I joined MAHA was to bring more diversity to the bench," Harnais said.

Law schools need to do more to encourage minority students to pursue a legal career, he said. While there's an awareness that minorities are underrepresented in the legal profession, "The question is, has there been any progress?"

Pamela M. Dashiell, general counsel for the Massachusetts attorney general's office, agreed that more needs to be done.

"Kids are afraid to apply to law school because they're afraid they're not prepared," she said.

Dashiell estimated that there were only 30 to 60 African-American lawyers in the state when she started in 1980. And while she said she's sure there are more now, "I probably know every black lawyer in the state."

Unfortunately, she said, the majority of students form their opinions of lawyers from television shows like "Ally McBeal."

"There's some room out there to talk about lawyers and what they do," Dashiell said, endorsing the plan to speak to high school and college students about the legal profession and why minorities should play a role in it.

Yarashus' plan to partner with minority bar associations is a good one, Fitzgerald said.

"The effort will involve starting with students by fostering interest in a future profession in the law at the high school age and even lower, and promoting that in colleges and hopefully, engaging more young people's interest in the legal profession," he said.