The goal is simple — attract minorities to the legal profession.
That same goal also is difficult because so many minorities have had a bad experience with the law. They do not think they could succeed as a lawyer or a member of law enforcement.
The minority person’s bad experience with the system made the legal career choice less than desirable. It made no difference whether that bad experience was from law enforcement, an ineffective attorney, or the courts where their case seemed to fall through the cracks.
Yet, it is the lack of minorities in the legal profession, the lack of communication and trust that compounds the problems.
Those experiences for minorities could and should change in the future because of the Pipeline Project efforts by the Tulsa County Bar Association Diversity Development Committee.
Ruth J. Addison
, McAfee & Taft, and Jean C. Lopez, Hall Estill, serve respectively as chair and vice chair, say their work reaches beyond attracting people to be lawyers. It also includes other related professions, the judiciary, paralegals, legal secretaries, law enforcement, police, fire and sheriff’s personnel. It reaches down to communicating with high school students through the Streetlaw Class at Rogers High School.
Diversity Committee members also include: Daniel Gomez, Conner & Winters, and Anne Sublett, Conner & Winters.
Marvin Lizama, Brewster & De Angelis, and Jessica John Bowman, McAfee & Taft, recently joined the group.
Northeast Oklahoma Black Lawyers Association members who have participated include, Mike Manning, The Street Law Firm; Gary L. Davis, Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office, and Benoni Parsons, University of Tulsa College of Law Black Lawyers Student Association 2012 President.
“Part of our goal is to reach out to students and young people to help them realize they too can be part of the legal profession,” Addison said. There are no boundaries. A person can live anywhere in Tulsa and be eligible.
That drop in minorities entering a profession is not the fault of any one group. But it is within the scope of the legal profession to include more people. As changes occur, the number of people getting involved will increase. They will find they are the ones shaping decisions and serving as a conduit to the community.
Last year a decision was made to go to high schools and talk to students about their opportunities, Addison said.
The initial group included Sublett, Lopez and Addison.
One day each month they went to Rogers High School Streetlaw Class and meet with freshman through senior students.
Each attorney made presentations base on their perspective about the legal profession.
Addison had a group of freshmen students.
She was surprised at the questions she was asked that varied from something they had seen or heard on television to how a lawyer works in schools and in the community. Students wanted to understand what law was like in every-day life.
More than 200 students were in the assemblies, Addison said. “I spoke about my life experiences and then told them what they might do if they chose a career in law.”
The ideal situation would be to expand this program beyond Rogers High School and include McLain and other area high schools, she said.
Discussing the various legal careers, Addison noted that a law degree also could be used in various ways in other professions and that a lot of work exists with various non-profit organizations.
Stress is placed on increasing educational and professional goals.
“It helps for students to personally see us,” she said. “It helps them realize that as a minority, they too can achieve their dream.”
Lopez, from Puerto Rico, is the first generation from his family to go to U.S. schools.
Addison, whose parents came from Ghana, West Africa, said she is the first generation American child from her family to go through the American education system.
“I share with students that it is not where they come from that determines their future,” Lopez said. “I tell them they can plot their own course to determine their future.”
Addison added emphasis to those words, noting that a quality education would help the young people go through school and attain that important career path through higher education.
But, she tells the students it also is important they make the decision today and start working towards that goal — and they need to stay out of trouble.
Many students do not reach their goals because of actions they take as youth.
They don’t realize that a moment of recklessness can forever bar them from that sought-after job because they have been convicted of a felony, Addison said. They don’t understand that it takes dedication and effort to get through college and, after they take the LSAT, law school.
Some students may feel they can defer starting a law career and take up that path later in life.
That isn’t an impossible task, but it is more difficult, she said. But the reality is that no one holds them back except themselves.
“I continue to tell the students to make plans today so they can take advantages of opportunities along the way,” Addison continued. “They need to take some action that will help them determine what they want to be today, next week and next year.”
Despite the admonitions, she also doesn’t want to overwhelm students about the demands of four years of college and undergraduate work followed by three years of law school.
Part of the job is developing that relationship between members of the bar and the school, Lopez said. Attorneys visiting schools bridge a gap and build confidence among the young people. As a result, they weren’t afraid to approach them later on in life. They know they have found someone who cares, who understands them and can handle what needs to be done.
“We are fundamentally about increasing all ethnic groups, not just race or ethnicity,” Lopez said. These are groups that are under represented throughout all legal professions.
The goal is to have the local bar association (Tulsa County Bar Association) reflect the entire community (Tulsa).
That begs the questions as to why the legal community should reflect the broader community, he continued. It is a simple answer. The attorney functions not only in the legal profession, but also is involved in non-lawyer events in his neighborhood and on the broader picture, at the city, county, state and even national levels.
It is important that a diverse community has involvement at these different levels and lawyers can be the bridge that enhances the understanding. The legal community is well energized and involved in the issues whether it is working with boards making policies, writing ordinances or making economic development decisions. Tulsa will need an even more broad representation as the city becomes more diverse.
Minorities are getting involved, Lopez said. But it is not near the percentage of population increase.
The bond that is developed through the diversity committee efforts can help grow Tulsa both as a community and develop a strong economic base, Addison said.
The diversity committee has the support of the broader TCBA membership.
President Faith Orlowski, in the January issue of Tulsa Lawyer, applauded Addison and the Diversity Committee’s Pipeline Project.
Orlowski noted the committee is reaching high school students who never knew of the opportunities in the legal field and that “they are truly changing lives.”
Paul Brunton, past TCBA president, also has lent his support to the committee.
The Williams Cos. is supportive.
Looking ahead, Lopez said the inclusion of minorities at all levels will be critical as Tulsa becomes more involved with the global community.
International clients reviewing bids may reject companies without an adequate minority representation because they will want the successful bidder’s makeup to be a company “more like them.”
This article appeared in the January 26, 2012, issue of Tulsa Daily Commerce & Legal News.
It is reproduced with permission from the publisher. © Tulsa Business Journal. All rights reserved.