Alexandra Wilson, a young lawyer in London who deals with criminal and family defense matters, experiences the same behaviors that lawyers, especially colored lawyers, face there and everywhere: they are mistaken for a defendant three times on separate occasions on the same day he was instructed by a court clerk to wait outside for her case to be called. He was punished by an elderly white prosecutor who accused her of wanting to speak to her client and requesting details on court documents. Is there a problem with not being eager to represent her client when she doesn’t? I think there was no need in the older white man’s mind to vigorously defend her client. In the minds of the three people who made unjustified assumptions about her, a lawyer and a defendant look alike.
Outrageous? Naturally. The UK court apologized and said it was “urgently” investigating. While Wilson appreciates the apology, as Wilson put it, the issue is whether anything would change because of the three separate incidents on the same day. What do you think? More credibility than the numbers in the elections?
I’ve been mistaken for a court reporter, social worker, and client on numerous occasions, not to mention how many times I’ve been mistaken for a secretary, note-taker, copier / file clerk, or coffee sherpa. What is particularly annoying is that men (and I urge men to do so) do not seem to regard women as equal at work. That is changing, albeit slowly, certainly not fast enough for those affected by the discrimination.
Just like here in England, blacks make up the majority of the imprisoned population while making up only a tiny percentage of the lawyer population. As Wilson notes, seeing black lawyers is so important for children. When she was growing up, she didn’t and she wanted to.
It is just as important for citizens to see people on the bench who look like them. And as part of a full court press (sorry, I couldn’t resist) the Los Angeles Supreme Court is running a justice mentoring program. For years there have been various programs that are offered by various bar associations under the heading “So you want to be a judge” or corresponding words. I think this program will have a lot more gravitas in it as it has the imprimatur and involvement of the court. California Supreme Court Candidate Judge Martin Jenkins, who was Governor Gavin Newsom’s Appointment Secretary, “has led the Newsom administration’s efforts to build a judiciary that reflects the people they serve”. Yay !!!
There will be a standing committee composed of a diverse group of judges to identify, encourage, and provide mentors for anyone considering a legal career. Here in California, attorneys must have ten years of practice before they can even apply for a Supreme Court appointment or run for justice.
The court says that “… the aim of the program is to convey to the legal community the unified message of Governor Newsom’s commitment to appointing a highly skilled bank that reflects the rich diversity of the state.” How diverse? California is a minority majority state.
No race or ethnic group makes up the majority of the California population: 39% of citizens are Latinos, 37% are white, 15% are Asian, 6% are African-American, 3% are multiracial, and less than 1% are Native Americans or Pacific Islanders. according to the 2018 American Community Survey. Latinos surpassed whites as the largest ethnic group in the state in 2014.
A judicial mentoring program is overdue. For years attorneys, bar associations, and others have wrestled their hands over the lack of diversity in the legal population, and therefore in the judiciary population. Efforts have been made to fill the diversity pipeline, even in high school. In high school, did you know you wanted to be a lawyer?
The American Lawyer Diversity Scorecard for 2020 shows some improvement, but there is nothing to jump up and down over. The AMLAW scorecard shows the 200 largest companies. Seventy-one law firms had at least 20% minority lawyers, so that’s one in three by my rough calculation. Seven percent (no typo) had at least 20 percent minority partners for a total of 14 companies. (Go ahead, check out my math.) Not a very impressive track record for companies trying to position themselves as welcome professionals.
And if we need to be reminded once again of the differences between men and women, majority and minority lawyers, recent National Association for Law Placement results show that men are still paid more than women (no surprise) and black graduates Right still have less success in the job market than other graduates. No surprise either.
In Jewish usage, “Shonda” means “shame”, “shame”. Let’s use “Shonda” in one sentence: It’s a Shonda that the legal profession still lags so far behind what it should be in terms of diversity and inclusion. What is so difficult about all of this? The lack of progress mystifies me as I am sure many others do. Race and gender, as Alexandra Wilson’s story shows, still permeate what we do and how we do it. It’s a “Shonda”. The Supreme Court’s judicial mentoring program will help. Identifying talent is an important first step towards a bank that looks more like California.
Jill Switzer has been an active member of the State Bar of California for over 40 years. She remembers working as a lawyer in a friendlier time. She had a varied legal career, including as a deputy public prosecutor, as a solo practice and as leading in-house gigs. She now teaches all day what gives her the opportunity to see dinosaurs, millennials, and the people in between – it’s not always bourgeois. You can reach them by email at [email protected].