I was surprised, and, honestly, a little envious, while I attended last month’s State Bar Diversity Counsel Program in Milwaukee. The program gave attendees concrete strategies to increase diversity and inclusion in the Wisconsin legal profession. As a government lawyer, I’ve looked with pride at the relatively high number of publicly employed lawyers from diverse backgrounds. The program’s corporate presenters described programs and strategies I have not encountered and a commitment to inclusion that has not wavered but intensified. Lawyers are positioned to affect how the United States moves forward as a society. Wisconsin law schools, with aid from businesses and the State Bar of Wisconsin, are helping our profession lead.
Kathleen Chung, Marquette 2001, is a solo practitioner in Madison and previously was assistant general counsel for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation for nine years. She has been director and president of the State Bar of Wisconsin Government Lawyers Division and a member and chair of the Diversity Clerkship Program and is a life Fellow of the Wisconsin Law Foundation. She is on the Executive Committee of the State Bar Board of Governors.
The State Bar has begun to collect membership demographic data, and the law schools, local entities, the ABA, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor continue to examine demographic trends in the legal profession. Approximately 8.5 percent of Wisconsin lawyers are minority (American Indian, Asian or Pacific Islander, Black, or Latino). This distribution reflects the state’s general population, 83 percent white and 17 percent ethnic minority or multiracial. Yet, Wisconsin is far less diverse and older than its neighbors and the nation as a whole. Societies worldwide are experiencing nationalist trends alongside growing income inequality and poverty.
How will lawyers participate in this dynamic environment? At the Diversity Counsel Program, we learned that corporate clients and lawyers in Wisconsin creatively, cooperatively, and yes, competitively, seek diversity in their employees, vendors, and contracts and engage inclusion in their daily work goals and long-term strategic plans. CUNA Mutual, American Family Insurance, and Northwestern Mutual all work to increase the number of diverse employees and in-house lawyers, and lately, focus more on inclusion – their specific efforts to include a variety of voices in meaningful decision-making processes. We heard that “diversity is being asked to the party, but inclusion is being asked to dance.”
The law schools lead our profession in diversity numbers. Marquette Law School and the U.W. Law School have similar proportions of students who identify as members of minority groups, 19 percent and 21.8 percent, respectively. But the minority students’ law school attrition rates are roughly double those of the white student population. Thus, the State Bar’s Diversity Clerkship Program is vitally important: it interviews and assigns 1L students to summer clerkships to begin inclusion during the first few months of school, rather than waiting until they compete for the critical 2L summer clerkship experiences. Program chair Andrew Chevrez said that the program takes the baton passed by the schools to include these students in our profession as early as possible. Calling it the crown jewel of the State Bar, Chevrez encouraged all Wisconsin lawyers and employers to consider joining the Diversity Clerkship Program – the only program to actually place first-year students from diverse backgrounds with legal jobs.
Law schools, law firms, and government employers should learn from corporations: having a diverse workforce is crucial not only because of the ethical duties, or financial and market imperatives, but because “it’s the right thing to do.”
Meet Our Contributors
What’s the most important advice you can give a new lawyer?
To students and new lawyers, I’d offer the best advice I received. Try anything, and resist the urge to follow a predetermined path. Of course, some will have a clear path for themselves, with good reason. But, in the absence of compelling cause, keep your options open. In class selection, when seeking interviews and early clerkships or internships, keep your gaze wide, and your interests broad. Soon enough, practical considerations will direct much of your career. For now, and for as long as possible, your choices are many – take advantage and try something new or different.
Kathleen Chung, Madison.
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