From the Diversity Conference Chair
By Chidi James, Esq.
Dear Virginia State Bar Diversity Conference Members and Friends,
I am honored to serve as the Chair of the Virginia State Bar Diversity Conference for fiscal year 2019-2020. I joined the diversity conference when Judge Manny Capsalis was president of the Virginia State Bar in 2009. At that time, there were many voices strongly opposed to the creation of the conference. Many questioned whether the Virginia State Bar had any business promoting/addressing diversity issues, because they believed diversity to be a political issue.
What I came to realize after the debate is that diversity is not a political issue. Or at least, it is no more of a political issue than Professionalism, Civility, and the Rule of Law. The Virginia State Bar’s mission statement is to do the following:
(1) to protect the public,
(2) to regulate the legal profession of Virginia,
(3) advance access to legal services, and
(4) to assist in improving the legal profession and the judicial system.
If we, as a Bar, are to fully advance any of these goals, we must gain an understanding of the importance of diversity.
Webster’s dictionary defines diversity as “the condition of having or being composed of differing elements…especially: the inclusion of different types of people in a group or organization.” https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/diversity. By definition, we have diversity in our society, because our country and this Commonwealth is composed of people of different genders, ethnicities, sexual orientations, religions, and values. That fact is inescapable. One of our goals as a diversity conference should be to encourage others not only to recognize that people are different but encourage each of us to get to know people who are different from us. I don’t mean just spending 10 minutes talking at a judicial reception or bar meeting, I mean getting to know each other to the point where we are having lunch, career mentoring, and swapping stories about families and shared experiences. Once we get to that point, I am confident that we will see that we have more in common than not.
There is one HUGE problem. It can be uncomfortable spending time with people who are not like us. (Remember “Stranger Danger”). What if they have different political beliefs? What if they have different religious beliefs? What if I offend them unknowingly? Unfortunately, being in an uncomfortable situation is unavoidable if we are going to break down barriers between people.
Here is where the prongs (1)(3) and (4) of the VSB mission come into play. (1) and (3) Protecting the Public and Advancing Access to Justice: Public confidence in our civil and criminal justice system is undermined if the average person who interacts with the legal system does see the bar and bench reflect their communities. If they do not perceive fairness in the legal system, they will be much less likely to use it and will have poorer outcomes when dragged reluctantly into it. (4) Improving the Legal Profession and Judicial System: In our Professionalism Course we are taught that a lawyer must learn to disagree without being disagreeable. The mandatory professionalism course is a one-time requirement. Embracing diversity and diversity programs helps us build on those principles of civility discussed in the Professionalism course. We don’t have to agree on everything, and that’s okay. We do have to treat each other with dignity and respect. If we can learn to treat each other with dignity and respect, regardless of our outward differences, the Legal Profession and our Judicial System will be that much closer to living up to the lofty self-evident truth that “all men (and women) are created equal,” and should be treated as such by our profession and our courts.
So, once again, I am very happy to serve as the chair of the diversity conference, and I look forward to building on our success, like the law day program, the annual forum on diversity, law student mentee program, the hill/tucker pre-law institute and others. If you have not been involved thus far, there is no time like the present. Please register for the diversity conference at https://www.vsb.org/site/conferences/diversity/membership_form , and we look forward to seeing you soon.
Very truly yours,
Chidi I. James
Attorney Chidi I. James is an AV rated attorney and a partner with the law firm of Blankingship & Keith, P.C. in Fairfax Virginia. His practice consists mostly of serious personal injury cases including wrongful death, products liability, and inadequate security cases. He serves as the Chair of the Diversity Conference for the 2019-2020 bar year.