Emory Law explores how to make 'diversity a reality every day'

By Susan Carini | Emory Report | Oct. 9, 2014

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Former Georgia Supreme Court Justice Leah Ward Sears (far right) addresses the need for diversity in the legal profession with (from left) DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James Jr., DeKalb County Assistant Solicitor-General Maria O. Banjo and DeKalb County State Court Judge Dax Lopez. Emory Photo/Video.

Despite stories of facing ignorance and obstacles, a message of optimism prevailed at "New-Age Diversity in the Legal Profession," the eighth-annual speaker series organized by Emory’s Black Law Student Association in association with Smith, Gambrell & Russell.

Vowing not to "sugarcoat" their experiences, the panelists — including Leah Ward Sears 80L, an Emory trustee and former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court — offered several "how-not-to" examples that underline diversity’s importance in legal circles:

• A rising Latino attorney, upon being hired to do litigation work at a large firm, hears that he will be paired with a mentor. Soon thereafter, he is walked over to the corporate section, where he is introduced to an African American attorney.

— DeKalb County State Court Judge Dax Lopez, who asked the question of his new employers: "Where is my litigation mentor? Why introduce me to the black lawyer in corporate?"

• This trailblazer was the first woman to integrate the Fulton County Superior Court. In her first weeks on the job, she remembers observers lining the walls and peering through doors. It was not simple curiosity, she says, but obvious skepticism about whether she could do the job.

— former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears who recalls, "It was a matter of persevering. I was on a mission to break through."

• As a district attorney in Georgia, he was approached by one of his attorneys, a gay man who, with a good performance record, wanted to transfer to the Crimes against Children unit. The transferring attorney’s supervisor argued against putting a gay man in such a position.

—DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James Jr., who advised, "Pick your battles, but don’t be afraid to fight. There is no excuse for a hostile work environment."

• A young African American female attorney described having to counsel an elderly white client not to say the "n word" on the stand because it would not resonate with jurors.

—DeKalb County Assistant Solicitor-General Maria O. Banjo, who notes, "I try not to let my personal identity get in the way of serving my clients’ needs."

Emory Law Dean Robert A. Schapiro framed the Sept. 30 event, invoking the legacy of Henry L. Bowden 32C 34L 59H and Ben F. Johnson Jr. 36C 40L 05H. On behalf of Emory, Bowden and Johnson in 1962 won a declaratory judgment from the Supreme Court of Georgia overturning a segregation measure in the state constitution that eliminated property tax exemptions for private schools that attempted to integrate.

"We honor the accomplishments of Bowden and Johnson, not merely through historical reflection, but by making diversity a reality every day," Schapiro said.

Lynell Cadray, Emory’s associate vice provost for equity and inclusion, moderated the event. Her first question was about how — with minority representation in the legal profession being less than 10 percent — to move more minorities in the pipeline. The respondents agreed that instilling confidence in young students is the key.

As James summarized, "The message is, ‘You can do what we do.’" With that seed planted, James continued, the legal community has to commit to mentoring; otherwise, "it is an empty promise." 

Gender in the legal profession

When the conversation turned to whether the legal workplace has dismantled being, as Cadray said, "structured around the life choices of men," it was Sears’ turn to shine. Her employment history is dotted with firsts, including being the first woman to serve on the Georgia Supreme Court, with four years as chief justice. Sears also was the first woman to be elected statewide in Georgia. 

She carefully distinguished between the pressures that the world puts on women and the way that women sometimes hold themselves back. She took her own experience as a case in point, saying, "When I first considered running for Fulton County Superior Court, I came up with all sorts of reasons why I shouldn’t, including that I had a one-year-old. Eventually, my husband gave me the kick I needed." Still, she observed, it remains true that women sometimes prefer being appointed to positions rather than running.

Sears also talked about the challenges of serving on the bench as a wife and mother. She confessed, to the audience’s hearty laughter, that she would be presiding over a murder trial and suddenly think, "Did I unthaw the chicken?"

"I had two children," she said, "so despite the weightiness of my responsibilities, I also had to finish the trial session, get on home, and put something on for dinner."

Today, as a partner at Schiff Hardin, Sears notes the continued lack of women in leadership roles, admitting that she and just a handful of women occupy top positions at her firm. In her view, firms’ understanding of work-life balance is evolving "very, very slowly" — a position that Lopez shared from the male side. He recalled thinking about his male mentors and realizing that so many of them "sacrificed their families for the sake of the firm because that was the expectation until very recently at many places, and is still the case at some."

Diversity about more than just ‘optics’ 

The evening’s last question centered on how students might manage their careers in order to capitalize on diverse experience. Lopez, tipping his hat to Sears, added, "Be so good you can’t be ignored." 

Sears’ recipe for the students: take advantage of opportunities. "Volunteer at Legal Aid," she said, "or speak at elementary schools — even though they can’t vote for you."

Banjo urged students to "show that you are more than your minority status — that it is not all that defines you."

On a night offering abundant wisdom, James offered a clear summary of the importance of diversity in the legal profession and beyond.

"Diversity is important not because of the optics. Lots of places just want to look diverse. It is what people bring with them, not their skin color or sexual orientation. It is their frame of reference and background," he said. "You are better as an institution if you are diverse. Diversity does not equal tokenism. It makes us greater."