First Annual Forum on Diversity in the Legal Profession Kicks Off a New Tradition

by Chris Fortier

It all started with an idea: to have a signature program that identifies the purpose of the Diversity Conference. Diversity Conference Chair Luis Perez kept selling this idea and on Friday, November 9, 2018, over 100 people witnessed that idea become reality. To open this new program, Virginia State Bar (VSB) President Len Heath and Supreme Court of Virginia Justice Cleo Powell welcomed the attendees with keynote speeches.

Professor Jessica Erickson welcomed attendees on behalf of the host, the University of Richmond School of Law. She noted that successful law school faculty need to have the tough conversations, show analytical skills, communications skills, collaboration, and persistence. She pointed out that these skills also make for successful skills to be a lawyer. She was delighted that the attendees would use these skills to advance the dialogue at the University of Richmond School of Law.

VSB President Len Heath noted that diversity and inclusion are important, stating, “The bench and bar have to reflect the community. If it does not, there is no trust or understanding. It takes work to gain trust.” He noted that the community has seen what happens when its relationship with the law goes wrong.

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VSB President Len Heath provides a welcome to the Forum.

President Heath urged attendees to serve. The committees and boards at the Virginia State Bar search for lawyers of all backgrounds to serve. As an example, the MCLE Board is the most diverse board on the VSB. The Nominating Committee looks for diversity at every level: race, age, gender, practice area, geographic area. They nominate two people for every slot and the  Supreme Court of Virginia makes the final selection. The Supreme Court also looks for diverse group of leaders to serve the profession.

Justice Powell then discussed the impact of diversity on the administration of justice. She pointed to the 64 Crayola crayon box that children had years ago. With more colors, people could create with more options. She noted that children naturally include others. However, as we grow up, we often insulate ourselves from inclusiveness.

Justice Powell noted her hope to dialogue together with the goal to regain being wiser and stronger through inclusiveness rather than divisiveness. We will look to law schools, lawyers, and the bench to define why does it matter. There are those who don’t believe it matters but there are others who believe it matters. There is room at the table to have the discussion. She charged the attendees to “please leave room for reason when you dialogue.”

Justice Cleo Powell gives an opening keynote speech at the Forum.

Justice Powell focused her remarks on why diversity matters, noting that she has learned a lot on the Court. “Diversity of thought is valuable essential commodity on a multi-person bench.” She was astounded at the first bench conference with the dialogue between the justices. She then told about an incident where where she and a colleague read a short statute differently. Both views were legitimate and she grew to appreciate the difference of opinion. Two people can read the same words and come to divergent opinions. This has everything to do with diversity.

She noted that she has to consider what if she is wrong. “Would the outcome stand the test of time and stare decisis?” She reminded the attendees of this quote: “When you are all thinking alike, someone is not thinking” by General George S. Patton.

Justice Powell turned to the issue of perception as it can make all that you do for naught. She lauded her colleagues on the bench as men and women of honor who strive to uphold oath. However, the perception of litigants who walk into court is their reality and that shapes how they and those close to them see the court. When something goes wrong, it is human nature to look for the why, No matter how unfair, a human’s perception is their reality. We as a profession have to meet the citizens where they are as the optics of Justice are just as important as the reality. The diversity makes a difference, proving that we are working to make just decisions. By being inclusive, we say to each citizen of Virginia that, in the words of Langston Hughes, “we see you and we hear you, we acknowledge that you too sing America.”

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Chris Fortier serves on the Board of the Governors of the Diversity Conference, working on the Invictus newsletter and the Diversity Conference website and social media. In his day job, he works at the Social Security Administration (SSA). The views in this article do not reflect those of SSA or the Federal Government.

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