Editor's Note: The following is Hank Greenberg's President's Message as it appears in the June-July NYSBA Journal. A news release announcing the diversity initiative can be found here and a link to the photo montage on the cover of the Journal can be found here. Greenberg's diversity initiative has already received media coverage in the New York Law Journal and Law360 (subscription required).
This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, a series of violent demonstrations against discriminatory police tactics outside a gay bar in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan.
The protests lasted for six days, following a police raid that occurred in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969. The event is widely heralded as the start of what is today known as the LGBTQ+ rights movement, which has achieved far reaching legal victories over the ensuing half century.
The Power of Lawyers to Achieve Social Justice
The success and strength of this movement represents one of the most extraordinary chapters in American legal history. It also demonstrates the power of lawyers to safeguard liberty, eliminate discrimination, and achieve social justice.
When I attended law school in the mid-1980s, it would have required prophetic powers to envision a society that viewed sexual orientation as a legal irrelevancy and same-sex marriage as a constitutional right. The AIDS epidemic was raging, taking the lives of 46,344 people by 1989, and three out of four cases were gay men. Fear gripped the nation. Homophobia was rampant.
Moreover, the law of the land was Bowers v. Hardwick, a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld a ban on sodomy in Georgia after a gay man was criminally charged for having consensual sexual relations with another male in the bedroom of his home.
Undaunted, lawyers continued to battle for equality in the courts. In 1989, the New York Court of Appeals handed down Braschi v. Stahl Associates, which held that the surviving partner of a same-sex relationship was "family" and therefore had the right to remain in a rent-regulated New York City apartment even though his name was not on the lease. At the time, legal acknowledgement of same-sex relationships was almost nonexistent.
In 2003, 17 years after the Bowers decision, the Supreme Court righted its wrong in Lawrence v. Texas, by striking down a Texas law that criminalized homosexual sex. The Court declared: "Bowers was not correct when it was decided [and] is not correct today."
More Supreme Court victories followed. In 2013, United States v. Windsor compelled the federal government to recognize same-sex marriage. Two years later, in Obergefell v. Hodges, the Court ruled that same-sex couples had a constitutional right to marry, legalizing same-sex marriage across the country.
These transformational changes in American jurisprudence tell an inspiring story of how lawyers can help create a more just and diverse society. Now, the time has come for the legal profession to apply the same determination to diversify itself.
The Legal Profession's Diversity Imbalance
The hard truth is that law is one of the least diverse professions in the nation. Our clients are women and men, straight and gay, of every race, color, ethnicity, national origin, and religion. Yet, the legal profession is not nearly as inclusive as the people we represent.
Indeed, a diversity imbalance plagues law firms, the judiciary, and every other sphere where lawyers work. Consider these facts:
• According to a recent survey, only 5 percent of active attorneys self-identified as black or African American and 5 percent identified as Hispanic or Latino, notwithstanding that 13.3 percent of the total U.S. population is black or African American and 17.8 percent Hispanic or Latino.
• Minority attorneys made up just 16 percent of law firms in 2017, with only 9 percent of the partners being people of color.
• Men comprise 47 percent of all law firm associates, yet only 20 percent of partners in law firms are women.
• Women make up only 25 percent of firm governance roles, 22 percent of firm-wide managing partners, 20 percent of office-level managing partners, and 22 percent of practice group leaders.
• Less than one-third of state judges in the country are women and only about 20 percent are people of color.
This state of affairs is unacceptable. It is a moral imperative that our profession better reflects the diversity of our clients and communities, and we can no longer accept empty rhetoric or half-measures to realize that goal. As Stanford Law Professor Deborah Rhode has aptly observed, "Leaders must not simply acknowledge the importance of diversity, but also hold individuals accountable for the results." It's the right thing to do, it's the smart thing to do, and clients are increasingly demanding it.
NYSBA Leads on Diversity
On diversity, the New York State Bar Association is leading by example.
This year, through the presidential appointment process, all 59 NYSBA standing committees will have a chair, co-chair or vice-chair who is a woman, person of color, or otherwise represents diversity. To illustrate the magnitude of this initiative, we are celebrating it on the cover of the Journal.
Among the faces on the cover are the new co-chairs of our Leadership Development Committee: Albany City Court Judge Helena Heath and Richmond County Public Administrator Edwina Frances Martin. They are highly accomplished lawyers and distinguished NYSBA leaders, who also happen to be women of color.
Another face on the cover is Hyun Suk Choi, who co-chaired NYSBA's International Section regional meeting in Seoul, Korea last year, the first time that annual event was held in Asia. He will now serve as co-chair of our Membership Committee, signaling NYSBA's commitment to reaching out to diverse communities around the world.
This coming year as well we will develop and implement an association-wide diversity and inclusion plan.
In short, NYSBA is walking the walk on diversity. For us, it is no mere aspiration, but rather, a living working reality. Let our example be one that the entire legal profession takes pride in and seeks to emulate.