Those with disabilities have recently observed Disability Pride month in July. On July 26, 1990, the Americans With Disabilities Act became law. The changes it has brought about in the ensuing three decades have done much to make Americans acknowledge and work together to overcome things that discriminate against the disabled, whether they be physical barriers or work conditions lacking appropriate accommodations.
The Diversity Conference celebrates the attorneys, litigants, consumers of legal services – indeed, everyone – no matter where they may fall in the range of abilities. Our mission statement expressly includes those with disabilities, stating:
“The Diversity Conference (DC) was established in 2010 to bring together Virginia State Bar members interested in promoting diversity and inclusion in the legal profession and in ensuring that Virginia meets the legal needs of an increasingly diverse population. Diversity refers to, among other things, race, age, ethnicity, gender, religion, education, disability, socioeconomic status, and sexual orientation. The DC recognizes the inherent worth and dignity of all people and offers opportunities to serve the profession and the public through various programs and educational sessions.”
How can a practitioner recognize and address the needs of our diverse community? Changing demographics of our Commonwealth brings changing legal needs of our clients. How can we, as attorneys, serve as counsel? The differing abilities and needs of our citizenry now significantly affect a lawyer’s professional and ethical obligations in communicating with and representing clients, interactions with the court and juries, litigation, and public service.
The panel was moderated by Hon. Manuel A. Capsalis, Judge, Fairfax General District Court and featured Carteia V. Basnight from the Law Office of Carteia V. Basnight, Martha JP McQuade from McQuade Byrum PLLC and Kimberly M. Turner, Law Offices of Kimberly Martin Turner, PLLC
The discussion began by acknowledging duties and ethical responsibilities to clients and how the client base and their legal needs has evolved through the years and how have they adapted? From a criminal law perspective, Ms. Basnight noted that clients may feel that the Criminal Justice system will not treat them fairly. Lawyers need to start with basics and explain the criminal justice system and what it does to try to make things fair. “While older clients do not expect much, younger clients expect a lot. Younger clients expect to be treated fairly in criminal justice system.
Ms Turner provided observations from a transactional practice perspective. Clients have wanted to address own levels of diversity on their own. They want to protect loved ones and assets, and make their legacy. Various factors such as religion, orientation, socio-economic background all come into play when deciding who they give agency to assets, craft a will, make funeral arrangements. Lawyers have to provide clients more customized services.
Ms McQuade stated that she has advised diverse clientele throughout her career and that each client presents challenges that she must research into crafting her representation. She urged attendees to help the judge understand what is going on with the facts. “You need to understand what the judge does not understand meaning not only cultural practices but legal issues and the implications of actions.
The discussion turned to cultural norms and how clients raised in different countries interact with the legal system. For example, some cultures emphasize telling the authorities all the facts, including the ones that implicate them in crimes. Other cultures have a fear of the police, and will pay the police to not arrest them. These are examples of mitigating factors that attorneys must point out and provide context to the court.
The panel ended with a discussion on preparing clients for court. Audience members shared their tips, urging one another to be direct with clients and seeking testimony from families and communities to explain why your client made the decisions he or she made. Using skills to tease out client information that they make think is irrelevant or embarrassing guides representation of the case.
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 are his and his alone and do not reflect those of SSA or the Federal Government.