Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr.

Remarks to the Conference of Chief Justices of State Supreme Courts

Austin, Texas

February 2, 2000

Thank you Mr. Chief Justice. Good afternoon. As a former trial judge in the District of Columbia court system, I must confess that it is a humbling experience to appear before the chief judges from the highest appellate courts of the fifty states. I hope that my comments today survive your de novo review.

It is a privilege, both as Deputy Attorney General and as a member of the bar, to be here today to speak with you about diversity in the legal profession. During the past year, I have had the opportunity to address many different groups on this important subject. Among these very distinguished audiences, this gathering stands out. As chief judges of the highest courts of your respective states, you frequently contribute the definitive word on pressing legal questions. As leaders of the bar, you help to establish the standards of professionalism and ethics that govern the practice of law. As attorneys who have reached the pinnacle of the profession, you are role models for the next generation. In short, yours is an organization with considerable power to shape the legal community. And with that power comes considerable responsibility.

Before I discuss the important role that you can play in the pursuit of diversity in the legal profession, I want to begin by describing the genesis of the Lawyers for One America project. In the fall of 1998, President Clinton asked me to take on a new assignment. He saw that our nation was making progress in its quest for racial healing, but he wanted to do more to quicken the pace of positive change. Despite a booming economy, historically low inflation, and the lowest crime rates in thirty years, the President feared that too many Americans -- principally ethnic and racial minorities -- were being excluded from this prosperity. Thirty years earlier, the Kerner Commission on Civil Disorders had warned us of this possibility: "America is rapidly becoming two societies, one black and one white, separate and unequal."

These concerns prompted the President to launch his Race Initiative. As part of that initiative, he asked me to convene a group of lawyers to discuss what the legal profession might do to redress racial inequality and injustice, including the lack of diversity in our own ranks. I brought together an ad hoc group of fifteen or so individuals to serve as a planning committee and a brain trust. The Presidents of the American Bar Association, National Asian Pacific Bar Association, National Bar Association, Hispanic National Bar Association, Native American Bar Association, the co-chairs of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, and a few other key individuals began meeting in my office on a monthly basis. Ideas took shape and flew; thoughts quickly progressed into concrete plans. Soon, we were exchanging e-mail with such frequency that an Internet LISTSERV was needed to handle the traffic. We supplemented our monthly meetings with conference calls on a weekly, and then a daily, basis.

The culmination of those initial meetings and exchanges was an event at the White House last summer. On July 20, 1999, the President issued a Call to Action to the legal profession. Aptly, we met in the same room where, thirty-six years earlier, President John F. Kennedy brought together two hundred-fifty lawyers to challenge them to participate in the burgeoning civil rights movement. That challenge, at a time when Alabama Governor George Wallace had defied a court order to admit black students to the state university one of whom is my sister in law and civil rights leader Medgar Evers was brutally murdered in his own driveway, lead to the formation of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law. Although our times are in many ways less tumultuous, it is nonetheless appropriate that we now convene in the shadow of President Kennedy to confront the racial inequities that survived the 1960s.

President Clinton began his remarks last summer by noting that "the challenge to build one America continues." He discussed some of the differences, and also some of the similarities, between the problems we confront today and the legacy of our nation's past. Then he called upon the legal profession to take two concrete steps in the pursuit of diversity. First, he asked the lawyers present to "recommit [them]selves to fighting discrimination, to revitalizing our poorest communities, and to giving people an opportunity to serve in law firms who would not otherwise have it." Second, the President called upon the legal profession to "set the best possible example," to tear down the "walls in our hearts and in our habits." And then he tasked me to report back on the progress of the legal community in meeting his twin challenges to diversify and to engage in Pro Bono activities.

The President's Call to Action resulted in the formation of Lawyers for One America. An outgrowth of the planning group that began meeting in the fall of 1998, Lawyers for One America is now a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to working with lawyers, corporations, law firms, law schools, bar associations, civil rights groups, and public interest organizations to meet the President's challenge. Affiliated organizations include the American Corporate Counsel Association, the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, the National Bar Association, the Association of American Law Schools, the Association of the Bar of New York, and the National Association of Public Interest Law.

Specifically, Lawyers for One America is working to create a database of successful practices and programs that are aimed at increasing diversity at all levels of the legal profession and expanding access to legal services. It is promoting these practices and programs through its extensive outreach network by means of several media, conferences, speeches, news articles, the Internet. This July, for example, Lawyers for One America will sponsor a day of coordinated pro bono work in several cities in order to raise awareness and to encourage such activity.

In order to appreciate the obstacles we as a profession face, one committee of Lawyers for One America is working to compile reliable statistics on the current composition of different tiers of the legal community, from law students to academics, associates to partners, law clerks to judges. Meanwhile, individual legal organizations are working one-on-one with Lawyers for One America to take their own steps towards meeting the President's challenge. In the case of the Justice Department, we have developed an eight-point plan to recruit and hire a more diverse pool of attorneys, we are revising our departmental pro bono policy, and we are reaching out to other federal agencies to encourage similar changes. Lawyers for One America is preparing to deliver a comprehensive report of its activities to the President in the fall of 2000.

Our work is certainly cut out for us. Within the legal profession, notwithstanding substantial gains in the last forty years, women and minority ethnic and racial groups continue to be vastly under-represented. Consider the following disturbing statistics:

Most troubling is that the disparities in the legal profession only get worse as one rises to higher and higher career plateaus. The percentage of minority partners at major law firms is minuscule even compared to the percentage of minority associates. And among the pool of partners, barely half of African-American partners at large law firms hold equity stakes, as compared to 70% of their white counterparts. Undoubtedly, some of this disparity in the upper echelons will disappear in the coming years as the next generation of lawyers reach their professional prime. But to some degree, these disparities at the top are also a self-fulfilling prophesy. Without mentors and without role models to encourage their professional development, young minority lawyers are at a permanent disadvantage in moving up the career ladder.

This lack of diversity within the legal profession adversely impacts our ability as lawyers to serve those most in need of assistance. According to a 1993 study by the American Bar Association, half of all low-income households have at least one serious legal problem a year, but three-quarters of that group have no access to a lawyer. Sadly, it is one legacy of our nation's history that this class of unrepresented clients disproportionately consists of racial minorities, single mothers, battered women. Of course, attorneys of all stripes and backgrounds can and do serve this client base by devoting countless hours of free legal assistance; their efforts are most commendable. But a legal profession lacking in significant racial and gender diversity can only go so far in combating the sense of alienation that disadvantaged clients feel when regularly confronted by an establishment of a distinctly different color.

For too many people, justifiably or unjustifiably, law is a symbol of exclusion rather than empowerment. It almost goes without saying that the criminal justice system is the bleakest example of this socioeconomic and racial divide. But this disheartening reality also applies to many other facets of life and the law - to landlord/tenant disputes, where families endure substandard housing conditions out of fear of eviction; to contracts, where consumers become trapped in cycles of debt and bankruptcy because retailers employ usurious credit terms; to families, where women endure physical abuse because they have little faith in law enforcement or the courts. The legal profession, however dedicated to pro bono service, will always lack the credibility integral to forging strong attorney-client relationships so long as it bears little resemblance to the clientele it purports to represent.

The challenge in the years ahead is to employ the immense creativity of the legal profession in our quest for one America. As judges, you well know that lawyers are a clever lot; consider some of the more creative causes of actions or criminal defenses or prosecution theories you have heard over the years. This creativity can and should be harnessed in service of the cause of diversity. For instance, whatever your views on affirmative action, I believe that there are many ways to diversify our own ranks while avoiding the divisive debates that have undermined such efforts in the past. Bar associations can work harder to promote mentorship programs for minority lawyers. Law schools can improve outreach efforts at single-sex and traditionally black colleges. Private practitioners can establish apprenticeship programs in conjunction with area public schools. These are all solutions that defy the notion that progress in the legal profession is a zero-sum game.

Similar creativity is needed when taking on pro bono assignments in pursuit of racial justice. Lawyers possess and employ skills everyday that far exceed the bounds of traditional courtroom advocacy. The transactional lawyer who negotiates commercial deals might set up financing for an inner-city revitalization project. A litigator's experience with high-pressure settlements might empower her to initiate a dialogue between community leaders and law enforcement representatives on issues such as racial profiling and excessive use of force. An in-house corporate attorney might put her talents to use in helping a minority-owned business succeed. A lobbyist might use his connections to develop ways to improve financing of local schools. The list of possibilities is as boundless as the creativity and innovation present in our legal community.

As an example, consider the project that one Florida law firm, Holland & Knight, took on. In 1923, an angry mob of whites burned the working class African-American community of Rosewood, Florida, to the ground after a white women accused a black Rosewood resident of raping her. At least six black residents died while the governor and local sheriff provided no police protection to stop the assault. In 1992, attorneys at Holland & Knight filed a claims bill on behalf of the twelve known survivors of the massacre. The state legislature commissioned a special master to study the issue. When the special master substantiated that state officials had been on notice of the likelihood of violence and had failed to take action to protect the black citizens of Rosewood, the attorneys lobbied for an appropriation to compensate the survivors and descendants. In 1994, they succeeded in winning a $1.5 million compensation package.

What role can you, as state chief justices, play in conjunction with the Lawyers for One America project? You can start, by favorably considering the resolution in support of these efforts to diversify the legal profession that you'll vote on this afternoon. Your endorsement carries great weight, and hopefully you will take it back to share it with your respective courts and legal communities.

Second, you can actively promote diversity in the legal profession and greater pro bono participation in areas of racial justice. As Chief Justices of the highest courts in your states, you are each leaders of the Bar. Undoubtedly, your Bar rules and committees already implore attorneys to treat others equally without regard to race or gender and to take on pro bono assignments. You have the unique ability to use the bully pulpit that your position affords you to make these commitments tangible. Be vocal about opportunities to diversify and to serve. Make no mistake, you have the power to set the standards to which lawyers in your respective jurisdictions will aspire.

Please be mindful also that your own generation will set the tone for other lawyers to emulate. The legal profession devotes a great deal of energy and resources to encourage each incoming class of younger lawyers to make a commitment to pro bono activities. While this emphasis is proper, we tend to forget that older lawyers, (like me) unencumbered by the stress of making partner or paying off student loans, are often much better situated professionally and economically to devote extra time to pro bono enterprises. These are your friends, the godparents of your children, your former partners, your law school classmates. Call upon their services. Enlist them in your crusade, in our crusade.

Third, and perhaps most difficult of all, lead by example. Over time, your own hiring practices tell a story about your commitment to diversity. As recent protests at the United States Supreme Court brought to the fore, judicial clerkships are highly coveted assignments in the legal profession, both for the learning experiences they offer and the prestige that they carry. Make affirmative efforts to solicit and encourage applications from minority candidates. Re-assess your own selection criteria with an eye to leveling the playing field. Consider an applicant who does not enjoy all the socioeconomic and cultural advantages of her peers. I think you will be pleasantly surprised at the breadth of talented, qualified, applicants who are eager for the chance to prove themselves.

There is no question that, however strong our commitment, we cannot counteract this country's unfortunate legacy of racial inequality overnight, or over the course of the next year alone. But considering the strides the legal profession has already made, the obstacles before us now are imminently surmountable. I hope that, as leaders in the legal community, you will assume a lead role in the coming years in advocating for One America. I implore you to join with us, your colleagues in the law, in making the elusive dream of "One America" a concrete reality.

Thank you.