Reflecting On Our Progress

by Robert E. Harrington

This year's Law Day marked the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation with the theme, "Realizing the Dream:  Equality for All."  Congressman Mel Watt, our 1988-89 MCB president, was our keynote speaker at the May 2 event.

 

As the Law Day Committee recognized, we were particularly fortunate to have Congressman Watt as speaker for this year's Law Day program.  Acknowledging that he had become the first African American president in the then 76-year history of the MCB, Congressman Watt remarked in his initial president's column: "I accept the position of President of the Bar in . . . the spirit that I'm a lawyer who happens to be black."  His focus for the year was "to maintain the high standard of leadership this Bar has enjoyed in the past."

 

In April 2006, former MCB president and Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Shirley Fulton added her own observations. Recalling growing up in Williamsburg County, South Carolina, and going on to serve on the Mecklenburg County bench before becoming Bar president, Judge Fulton wrote, "I pinch myself because it amazes me that I, Shirley Louise Fulton, a little black girl from Kingstree, SC, was able to reach for the stars.  But again, all things are possible, though seldom easy."

 

With these observations from Congressman Watt and Judge Fulton in mind, and with Law Day this month, I've been thinking about how far we as a Bar have come along the road to "Equality for All."  How successful have we been in fostering an environment in which all of our members have an equal opportunity to succeed (or fail), and how far do we have yet to go?

 

Among our accomplishments, one is subtle, yet certain.  Leadership of the Bar by women and minority lawyers is no longer new.  In the time since Congressman Watt served as MCB president 24 years ago, four women and four lawyers of color have followed him.

 

At the same time, however, the diversity of our membership has broadened.  As our county has changed, the Bar has changed, and today's MCB includes active members of many backgrounds, witnessed by the creation of the Charlotte Women's Bar, Mecklenburg County Hispanic/Latino Lawyers' Bar and Mecklenburg County Asian Pacific American Bar Association, the continuing work of the John S. Leary Association of Black Attorneys, and efforts to establish an affinity organization of LGBT attorneys.

 

The increasing diversity of our 4600-member Bar is at once a source of strength and vitality and a source of continuing challenge. With this expanding diversity, creating and preserving equal opportunity and equal access for all members of our Bar has become ever more complex.  Past MCB President George Hanna acknowledged this "balance of recognizing both how far we have come and also how far we have to go" in his final president's column in June 2004.

 

The Bar's work in this area reflects both progress and the need for continued vigilance.  While the MCB does not have statistics on the gender or ethnicity of our members, anecdotal indications are that the numbers and percentages of women and minority lawyers continue to increase.  Data collected from the law firms participating in the MCB General Counsel and Managing Partners' Diversity Initiative reflect that the percentages of women and minority lawyers in participating law firms has basically held steady over the past six years -- an accomplishment, given the recession.  Nonetheless, these numbers lag comparable national statistics.

 

Similarly challenging, and important, is the need to increase opportunities for women and minority attorneys to serve in positions of leadership within our constituent organizations -- as partners and owners of law firms and as leaders of corporate law departments.  Likewise, we face the challenge of creating a level playing field for women and minority lawyers in obtaining quality legal work, whether these lawyers are in solo practice, in small firms (including women and minority-owned firms), or in large firms.  The MCB has sought to play a role in these efforts by working with participating law firms and corporate law departments through the Diversity Day Program for aspiring law students, the Charlotte Legal Diversity Clerkship Program, and the APEX mentoring program and by supporting the work of our local affinity bar organizations.

 

In all respects, we continue to push forward toward a time when the accomplishments of lawyers from traditionally underrepresented groups -- in our Bar activities and in our legal work -- are not the exception, but rather the unremarkable norm.  The transition from my year as Bar president to the term of President-Elect Tricia M. Derr and the occasion of Congressman Watt's Law Day remarks provide an opportunity to reflect on the progress we have made and the work that remains.

 

We have much still to do.  Yet, for me, recalling Congressman Watt's aspirations at the start of his term, I'm grateful that the things I will remember most from this year are the simple (and not-so-simple) tasks of helping to lead the Bar -- in this year, undertaking to relocate to a new Bar Center, working on the delivery of pro bono services, focusing on mentoring, and even revising MCB bylaws.  And, for that, I am grateful to our membership.