Six Lawyers Pave the Way for Others to Follow
Six exceptional lawyers dedicated to promoting a more racially and ethnically diverse legal profession were honored Feb. 4 with 2012 Spirit of Excellence Awards.
The American Bar Association Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession presented the award to John W. Daniels Jr., Ivan K. Fong, Petra Jimenez Maes, Carlos R. Moreno, Cynthia E. Nance and Mary L. Smith during the association’s Midyear Meeting in New Orleans.
“We are here to recognize those who have already achieved a tremendous amount in the pursuit and advancement of diversity in their spheres of influence,” said Reginald M. Turner Jr., chair of the commission. “These distinguished lawyers and judges embody the Spirit Awards’ motto ‘To the Stars through Difficulty.’ Their professional careers and personal lives exemplify a shared commitment to valuing diversity in all facets of the profession and society.”
ABA President Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III thanked the honorees and stressed the importance of diversity in the profession.
“On behalf of the ABA we salute these very special honorees. Their dedicated work towards building a more diverse legal profession and justice system is reflected in the growth and change we are seeing in America,” said Robinson. “However, there is still much work to be accomplished. Change comes from continuous dedicated effort.”
Fong, general counsel of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, highlighted the struggles of immigrants—many of whom having left their home countries, settled in the United States and worked long hours to raise a family—and their contribution to American society.
“It is the collective story of so many immigrants who came before us and after us in search of a better life,” Fong said. “It is the collective story of an ideal that has made America stronger, more innovative and a beacon for freedom across the globe.”
Maes, justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court, began diversifying the legal profession by advocating for the hiring of Hispanic law professors.
“I learned diversity and inclusion in law school,” said Maes, the first Hispanic female to attend the University of New Mexico Law School and the first Hispanic woman to become chief justice in New Mexico.
The New Mexico Supreme Court has demonstrated a strong commitment to diversity through its committees and commissions, Maes said.
This is especially true of “the Judicial Selection Commission, which makes recommendations to the governor when judicial vacancies occur,” Maes said. “The obstacle we face is that not enough attorneys of color and women apply.”
Increasing diversity in the judicial system can improve the quality of justice on all levels, said Moreno, lawyer for Irella & Manella LLP and a former California Supreme Court justice.
“There is nothing about a judge’s race, ethnicity or gender that should ever trump a judge’s oath to follow the law,” Moreno said. “To promote diversity is not to diminish the quality of justice in anyway, but rather to enhance justice.”
When it comes to Native Americans in the profession, there are two main problems—a lack of knowledge related to Native American law and that they are overlooked completely, said Smith, president-elect of the National Native American Bar Association.
“If I had a dollar for every time someone gives a so-called diversity list such as the following: African-Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics, LGBT, disabled. … A lot people don’t even notice that Native Americans weren’t even mentioned,” said Smith.
There is not one Native American serving in the federal judiciary, Smith said.
Becoming a diversity advocate was something that Nance, professor at the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville, did not set out to “do.” Instead her awareness and commitment developed over time and was shaped by life experiences, Nance said.
“It is possible to excel even when starting from a disadvantaged position,” Nance explained. “It can be done with faith, hard work, diligence, courage and joy when stretching to reach the next level.”
Daniels, the chairman of Quarles & Brady, started his education in segregated schools in Birmingham, Ala., finished at Harvard Law School, and has devoted his life to increasing diversity in the legal profession.
The Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession is a catalyst to change the legal profession to reflect the society it serves. It helps racially and ethnically diverse lawyers advance their careers and standing in the profession. Its leadership, programs and information help the profession understand and eliminate racism, bigotry and discrimination. The commission works to increase racial and ethnic diversity in the legal profession, and thus enrich it.