January 2011 President's Column
Towards 2050 and Beyond
By A. Todd Brown
In 2012 the Mecklenburg County Bar turns 100 years old. Both a Centennial Committee and a Bar History Committee are busy planning a celebration befitting the occasion. But as we look back at the past century, we must also look forward at important societal changes that are destined to transform the legal profession in the decades ahead.
Increasingly, we are both an aging and more racially and ethnically diverse population. Consider the changing demographics between the 2008 population of 304 million to the projected 2050 population of 439 million U.S. residents. Regarding age, in 2008 U.S. residents age 65 and over numbered 38.7 million; current projections place that number at 88.5 million in 2050. As to race and ethnicity, in 2008 Hispanics residing in the U.S. numbered 46.7 million; projections are 132.8 million in 2050. For African Americans, the numbers are 41.1 million in 2008 and 65.7 million in 2050. And for Asians, 15.5 million in 2008 and 40.6 million in 2050. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that by 2042, America will be a "majority minority" country in terms of its racial and ethnic populations. The media have dubbed this demographic phenomenon "the browning of America."
America is a racially diverse nation, currently made up by 30% people of color and approximately 51% female. Today, however, the legal profession remains one of the least diverse professions in the country. Statistics show that 90% of the legal community is white, and of that, more than 70% are men. What does a steady demographic shift towards an increasingly diverse population portend for our profession in the coming decades?
A look back reveals that lawyers of color and women still face impediments to full participation in the legal profession. A recent 2010 ABA report entitled Diversity in the Legal Profession, Next Steps observed: "Several racial and ethnic groups, sexual and gender minorities, and lawyers with disabilities continue to be vastly underrepresented in the legal profession. From a racial/ethnic perspective, Whites constitute about 70% of working people over age 16, yet they represent 89% of all lawyers and 90% of all judges, according to 2009 census data." Recessionary pressures and complacency have undermined many past diversity initiatives that successfully sought to promote lawyers of color. A series of reports from the ABA's Commission on Women in the Profession confirm that equally-qualified women lawyers are still paid significantly less than male counterparts; that women have made only incremental progress in terms of higher percentages of law firm partnerships, judicial appointments, and tenured faculty positions; that businesses and law firms fail to retain women and people of color in proportion to the numbers graduating from colleges and professional schools; and that work-life balance, professional development, mentoring, and lawyer-client relationships for women and lawyers of color continue to suffer.
A look forward offers encouragement. It is beyond serious dispute that a diverse legal profession promotes the publics trust in the rule of law, and that a diversity of perspectives leads to better questions, analyses, and solutions. The unfolding demographics mean that change will come. The legal profession of today must comprehend the implications of lawyers of color and women ascending to greater positions of authority and leadership in the fullness of time. The prism through in which we view our efforts to improve diversity and inclusion in the legal profession must evolve to reflect these societal changes.
If the empirical evidence on the salutary influences of diversity fails to convince you, perhaps a mathematical model will tip the scales. Scott E. Page, a University of Michigan Professor and author of The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies, in a 2008 New York Times interview, explained the model thusly: "What the model showed was that diverse groups of problem solvers outperformed the groups of the best individuals at solving problems. The reason: the diverse groups got stuck less often than the smart individuals, who tended to think similarly. The other thing we did was to show in mathematical terms how when making predictions, a groups errors depend in equal parts on the ability of its members to predict and their diversity. This second theorem can be expressed as an equation: collective accuracy = average accuracy + diversity."
The MCB established a Special Committee on Diversity in 2004 to examine and increase the extent to which lawyers from traditionally underrepresented groups -- identified by race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, marital/parental status, and disability -- have participated in the Mecklenburg County legal community and have been encouraged to grow professionally. The Committee has been a visible leader in fostering diversity and inclusion, forging new coalitions among disparate segments of our local bar and educating the public about the value of diversity and inclusion. To learn more about its mission, good work, and contributions to diversity in Mecklenburg County, please visit the Bar's Diversity page.
Ensuring diversity is a cornerstone of the MCB's Strategic Plan. While reasonable people may disagree over whether diversity initiatives add value generally or whether a mandatory bar should promote diversity initiatives specifically, the MCBs leadership moved beyond that discussion long ago. It is a debate I do not intend to revisit. We must stay the course in respect of efforts designed to increase diversity and inclusion within the MCB, in part to address undeniable cultural, racial, ethnic, and gender disparities that exist in our profession, including in Mecklenburg County; to adapt to changes stemming from the countrys seemingly inexorable demographic transformation as we move towards 2050; and to ensure that members of the legal profession remain in the vanguard of leaders who will shape the new landscape.
It is a mathematical certainty that America will change demographically and become more diverse. One of the key questions we therefore must address, thoughtfully and collaboratively, is: what steps will today's leaders of the legal profession take in anticipation of a constant drumbeat for greater diversity and inclusion in the decades ahead? To quote that familiar expression, it's time to "lead, follow, or get out of the way!"