Diversity panel: Different lawyers have different perspectives

Published: October 22nd, 2012

Category: News


A diversity panel held Oct. 12 at UF Law featured national and local leaders who discussed how to minority lawyers can claim more of the jobs and governance of the legal profession. (Photo by Marcela Suter) 

By Francie Weinberg
Student writer

When The Florida Bar integrated – requiring all Florida lawyers to become members – in 1950 the white leadership was mindful that it would not allow blacks into its social gatherings.

That history lay in the background of “Leadership and Law: Diverse Perspectives on the Role of Race and Participation in Professional Legal Organizations,” presented Friday, Oct. 12. The program brought together leaders from national, state and local bar associations into the Martin H. Levin Advocacy Center Courtroom to discuss ways in which (voluntary) segregation still exists today in Florida’s legal profession – and whether there’s anything wrong with that. Panelists also discussed how minority lawyers can claim more of the jobs and governance of the legal profession.

From the local level all the way to the national level, legal bar associations are often divided by color lines, decades after becoming officially integrated. The event focused on ways to foster a dialogue on avenues for leadership and joint initiatives that transcend racial and other divides.

More than 70 people of many races came together to listen to five noted panelists. The panel included Daryl Parks, Arnell Bryant-Willis, Carl Schwait, AuBroncee Martin and Dawn Vallejos-Nichol, and was moderated by UF Law Professor Kenneth B. Nunn. It was sponsored by the 8th Judicial Circuit Bar Association, the Josiah T. Walls Bar Association, UF Law Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations and The Florida Bar. The program was the brainchild of Rob Birrenkott, director of UF Law’s Center for Career Development.

Panelists discussed why it is necessary to have minority bar associations in addition to general bar associations, and how it helps give black lawyers useful connections and a push in the right direction.

“It’s not necessarily what is printed in the law books or the cases,” said Martin, the felony division head for the public defender’s office for the 8th Judicial Circuit and president-elect of the Josiah T. Walls Bar Association. “It’s about how you relate to one another that really drives the legal system. In the legal profession, bar associations are good opportunities for you to put yourself in a position for good things to happen to you.”

Inspired by the 50th anniversary of the graduation of W. George Allen (JD 62), who helped pave the way for generations of students in Florida by becoming the first African-American to graduate from the University of Florida and UF Law, the discussion also focused on how to diversify the law profession.

“The challenges for African-American lawyers just tend to be a little bit different than other lawyers,” said Parks, immediate past president of The National Bar Association, a legal group for African-Americans. “The NBA is able to really go to bat for diversity. When it comes to these crucial issues, we have to argue that we deserve better.”

Nunn asked why a separate bar association for African Americans is necessary. He also brought up why it is important to work toward bringing The National Bar Association together with other bar associations like The Florida Bar.

“We live in a multi-cultural, multi-diverse world,” said Bryant-Willis, a member of The Florida Bar Board of Governors and The Florida Bar’s Inaugural Diversity Initiatives Manager. “What the bar is trying to do is develop programs so that we can help minorities reach out and become a part of minority organizations if they so desire.”

Nunn’s final concern was how to move the various bar association toward a more diverse and united front and what the future holds.

“They’re just groups that recognize that different lawyers have different life perspectives,” Martin said. “Each of these organizations is akin to an instrument and when you play them together you make beautiful music.”