By Patrick Tandy
In 1954, the United States Supreme Court issued its landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision, which ruled the segregation of American public schools unconstitutional. That same year, in Harford County, Maryland, Harry S. Johnson was born. Fifty years later, Johnson, a Litigation Partner in the Baltimore office of Whiteford | Taylor | Preston, LLP, would go on to become the first African-American President of the Maryland State Bar Association (MSBA).
Johnson, who joined the Maryland Bar in November 1979, recalled the many watershed moments for minorities in the legal profession during his lifetime – the appointment of Judge Harry A. Cole, the first African-American to serve on the Court of Appeals of Maryland, in 1977; the appointment of the high court’s first African-American Chief Judge, the Honorable Robert M. Bell, nearly two decades later; and the election of the first woman of color to lead the MSBA, Past President Judge Pamila J. Brown, in 2015, to name but a few – during his keynote address at MSBA’s inaugural Diversity & Inclusion Conference on Thursday, March 21, 2019, at the University of Baltimore Merrick School of Business. Johnson also cited the creation of specialty bars that have given greater voice to historically underrepresented lawyer groups like women, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, and the LGBTQ communities.
However, “diversity alone does not move the needle – inclusion is what is important,” Johnson told the conference’s more than 60 attendees, who represented a broad swath of professional and cultural backgrounds. “Inclusion means having a voice in the discussion. We, as the organized bar, must ensure that we have diverse voices in the conversation.”
Such efforts to that end on the part of the MSBA have included the creation of the Diversity & Inclusion Committee, which hosted the conference, during Brown’s year as President.
“When we talk about diversity, it’s not just your hiring [practices],” said Committee Chair Yolanda F. Sonnier. “It’s also how you relate to your clients, how you are serving your clients, how you respond to people in the courtroom…diversity falls on so many levels.”
Brown stressed the importance of such a forum, especially in today’s sociopolitical climate.
“We are really in uncharted waters with respect to the vitriol going on around us – the increase in hate crimes, the lack of tolerance for diverse opinions,” said Brown. “Lawyers have always been at the forefront of change, and that is what the Committee is endeavoring to do. We’re all stronger when we work together.”
Contextualizing both past and present, the conference cast a wider eye toward the future with panel discussions such as “Change Comes to Washington”, “Diversity is Good for Business”, “We’ve Been There Before”, and “Views of Diversity and Inclusion from the Bench”, each drawing upon the experience and unflinching insight of key members of the bar and bench.
The importance of maintaining a strong support network of family and friends, as well as bar association colleagues, was a common thread for many of the panelists, virtually all of whom related firsthand encounters with bigotry, implicit bias, racism, and sexism as well as matters involving gender identity, sexual orientation, disabilities, and other forms of discrimination throughout their legal careers.
“This conference is both substantive and symbolic, and represents MSBA’s deep commitment to the promotion of diversity and inclusion within the legal profession,” said MSBA President Judge Keith R. Truffer.
“Today is our inaugural conference, but the intent is to hold many conferences to come,” said Sonnier, who encouraged attendees to take what they learned back “to share with people in your office, and figure out what you can do better at your organization, law firm, or bar association.”
Later, the Diversity & Inclusion and Business Development Committees of the Young Lawyers Section co-sponsored a happy hour and scavenger hunt for conference attendees at Baltimore’s Waverly Brewing Company.
Sponsoring Sections included Young Lawyers, Legal Education & Admission to the Bar, Administrative Law, Business Law, Estate & Trust Law, Alternative Dispute Resolution, and Solo & Small Practice, as well as the MSBA Membership Committee. Law firm sponsors included Pasternak & Fidis, P.C.; Sonnier Legal & Consulting Group; Downs Collins, P.A.; Law Offices of Elsa W. Smith, LLC; and the Basu Law Firm, LLC. Individual donors included the Honorable Michael W. Reed, Ken Besser, Dana Broughton, Robert Fontaine, Glendora Hughes, and Michelle Lipkowitz.