April's 2011 President's Column
Demographic Data: A Source of Cohesion or Division?
By A. Todd Brown
The Mecklenburg County Bar recently co-sponsored a program held at the Charlotte School of Law featuring acclaimed Harvard Law School Professor Charles J. Ogletree. The backdrop was Professor Ogletree's book entitled, Presumption of Guilt, which chronicles the mistaken arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., by Cambridge police Sgt. James Crowley for attempting to break into his own home. The ensuing media coverage ensnared President Obama and led to the gathering in the White House Rose Garden dubbed the beer summit. The Ogletree program focused on the continued disparity and the racial and ethnic disconnect between law enforcement and diverse communities. Exploring the attorney's role in addressing racial and class bias in the justice system, a panel of prominent local officials and attorneys, such as the Police Chief, District Attorney, Public Defender, and James Ferguson, used the Crowley-Gates incident to discuss the intersection of race, class, and perception in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg community. The consensus was that racial disparities and discrimination still exist in the criminal justice system and require continued focus and resources.
Perspectives on demographic data relating to race, ethnicity, gender, etc. are both complex and nuanced. As I listened to Professor Ogletree and the panelists discuss the nuances of race and class, I was reminded of a recent suggestion that the MCB has impermissibly waded into issues of race and gender. Specifically, a few members have suggested that the MCB's efforts to collect demographic information for an on-line listing of minority and women owned law firms in Mecklenburg County constitute impermissible actions based on race or gender, or actions in support for political or ideological causes, and thus are constitutionally infirm. One indicated they are divisive.
At my swearing-in, I pledged to make transparent our efforts and to be a good steward of Bar resources. In fidelity to both, I write on this issue.
For context, the MCB is accepting voluntarily submitted profile forms that will enable it to compile an on-line listing identifying minority and women owned law firms. All data are voluntarily submitted by firms willing to self-identify as minority or women owned. Ownership is defined as at least 51% owned by minority or women lawyers and where such owners control the firm's management and daily operations. The MCB will not vouch for the accuracy of the data submitted and will not use the listing to steer business based on demographics. The listing has not been posted anywhere, and plans are for it to be accessible via a link on the MCB's Diversity website and available to all members. Indeed, the listing will be a public record under the North Carolina public records laws.
The MCB already provides members the opportunity to post certain demographic information at the MCB Attorney Career Corner - Attorney Profile Center. There, recent graduates or attorneys in career transition can post a career profile and resume for networking and potential employment. They also can volunteer other information in different forms (e.g., experience, specialty area, law firm or agency employment, undergraduate or law school degree). Similarly, at the MCB's fall and spring swearing-in ceremonies, new admittees can voluntarily provide demographic information and request to be contacted by segments of the Bar for purposes of joining committees or sections, networking, mentoring, affinity bar affiliation, etc. The MCB provides such opportunities as a member service.
As I indicated in an earlier column, increasingly the demographic profile of the MCB and the legal profession is changing. That trend is projected to increase exponentially in the future. The MCB's knowledge and understanding of the demographic composition of its membership should facilitate better service to all components of the Bar. Remaining relevant to all segments of our membership is essential to the MCB's strength and vitality. As a fellow Bar president aptly observed, failure to support representation of all demographic groups may produce reactions far more insidious and common in some professional organizations -- disengagement, indifference and disillusionment.
It is noteworthy that around March 10, 2011, the North Carolina State Bar launched a survey to collect demographic data on a voluntary basis from all active North Carolina lawyers. The electronic survey asks participants anonymously and voluntarily to provide demographic data in three categories: race/ethnicity, gender, and birth year. Similarly, the MCB provides members the choice of voluntarily submitting such demographic data via the annual dues statement. The collection of demographic data by public agencies on a voluntary basis is not novel.
I am advised and believe that the MCBs collection of demographic information from firms that voluntarily self-identify as minority or women owned and that voluntarily choose to submit profile forms is permissible. But I respect contrary views suggesting that the act of voluntarily collecting demographic data is constitutionally infirm because it is based impermissibly on race, gender, politics, or ideology; or, it is unjustifiable, for instance, as a narrowly tailored effort to carry out the Bar's mission of serving its membership or to promote the goal of diversity and inclusion. I am considering appointing a task force to study this issue and report back to the MCB leadership. In the interim, since the issue is now on the table, I welcome thoughtful and focused written comments on whether the compilation of demographic information identifying women and minority owned law firms is indeed causing a gulf within our Bar, or has the potential to do so. Material divisiveness within the Bar may prove sufficient justification for changing course, as the MCB endeavors to promote a cohesive membership.
To endure, the MCB must be regarded as serving the needs and interests of all members and constituent parts. Our actions must be designed to unite us. That is the course the MCB's leadership has charted, and with your help we will continue to move forward together!