The phrase “Better Together” is more than just a popular Luke Combs country song, and it is more than just another catchy phrase about my approach to leadership or our identity as a bar association.
This phrase inherently emphasizes that our membership, and society in a broader sense, is made up of many different kinds of people. More importantly, it highlights the truth that each of us brings something different, valuable, and unique to the table — which, when collectively brought together, yields better results.
Organizationally, the bar has systematically adopted this “better together” kind of approach in its thinking, planning, and administration of services, and it fuels the State Bar of Michigan’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. As proof of this, please consider the Bar’s past efforts:
The bar created a senior management position in 2010 to spearhead our multifaceted work in diversity, a leadership role filled by Gregory Conyers since its inception. The following year, the Bar adopted the Pledge to Improve Diversity and Inclusion of the Legal Profession, thanks to the combined efforts of Gregory and former State Bar President W. Anthony Jenkins. That pledge now has more than 5,000 signatories, each of whom has committed to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in the profession. Furthermore, the Bar has conducted implicit bias training annually since 2015 — reaching 2,000 Bar members, including SBM commissioners and staff.
Also, the Bar has supported programming to diversify the pipeline of students entering the legal profession, including Face of Justice, the award-winning program developed in collaboration with the National Association of Women Judges (and one of my favorite programs personally). The jet-mentoring program gives high school students the opportunity to interact with a variety of legal professionals and allows them to explore career paths related to law and law enforcement.
The bar also collaborates with others to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion programming. One example is working alongside the Southeast Michigan Urban League to provide Detroit-area students tours of the 36th District Court while in session and Wayne County Community College to learn about higher education opportunities.
The Bar continues to adapt and evolve to address current issues. The leadership of the Bar created Race and Justice Forums in response to the murder of George Floyd so that we could engage the legal community in a quest to do more than offer statements of support for justice and equity. This includes quarterly Race and Justice Forums with presentations and discussion as well as a resources and education page online to share programming offered by other local, special purpose, and affinity bars in Michigan.
The actions of the Bar demonstrate a longstanding commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and we hope our work has helped moved the needle in our state. However, it is important to recognize inequities continue to exist in both our profession and society in general.
The State Bar of Michigan annually issues a report detailing the demographics of Michigan attorneys, and as of 2021, 18.9% of Michigan attorneys are people of color and 36.1% are women. Both still fall short of being representative of the state population (25.8% and 50.4% respectively), but the numbers certainly reflect significant improvement. In 1981, just 10.1% of new admits to the State Bar were people of color; in 2021, 37.3% of new attorneys were. This racial diversity is also helping to fuel gender diversity.
Among millennial attorneys, women outnumber men among attorneys who identified as American Indian, African American, Arab, Asian-Pacific Islander, and Hispanic. Among millennials, men only significantly outpaced women among attorneys who identified as having European descent.
Among the 18.9% of Michigan attorneys who identify as non-white, African-American attorneys account for the largest portion, with 1,230 active attorneys living in Michigan in 2021, about 6.1%. While there have been years with significant gains, 40 years ago 4.1% of the admission class was African American. In 2021, it had only inched higher to 4.5%.
We must do better.
At the Bar, we will continue our work to make the profession more open and more inclusive, but we know that success also depends on many other factors such as creating equitable standardized testing, diversifying law school admissions, broadening access to higher education and educational opportunities, and beyond.
Diversity, equity, inclusion — and justice — are complex issues. They are not about one goal, one effort, one step forward. They are about all of us, by all of us, and for all of us, because we really are all better together.