Michael Hamar

The Virginia State Bar's Idea of Diversity

Filed By Michael Hamar | April 16, 2009 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Politics, Politics

Manuel A. Capsalis, the current President of the Virginia State Bar, has made much of the issue of diversity and the need for the membership of the Bar to better reflect the demographics of Virginia.vl0209_cover.jpg

Despite the vast increase in the number of women and black attorneys compared to years past, the Bar continues to be a white male bastion, particularly when one looks at who is in the leadership positions in most major law firms in the state.

Worse yet, "diversity" in all of the discussions and columns and letters to the editor in the Virginia Lawyer focus solely on the number of women lawyers and the number of black lawyers. But there is absolutely no mention of LGBT attorneys - or Hispanic or Filipino attorneys - anywhere that I have found.

I have raised this issue in person and in e-mails to Capsalis and I know someone in a leadership position at Equality Virginia has as well, yet the issue of LGBT attorneys never seems to appear on the radar screen.

We remain invisible to the Virginia State Bar. As a consequence, there are no openly gay or lesbian attorneys in any of the larger law firms in all of Hampton Roads - an area with a population of 1.6 million people where I and one other attorney I know are the ONLY locally out attorneys to my knowledge.

The irony in this is that ALL of the reputable law schools in Virginia have a nondiscrimination policy that applies to law firms recruiting on their campuses. UVA's policy is typical and reads as follows:

The University of Virginia School of Law is committed to a policy against discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, political affiliation, sexual orientation, or status as a military veteran or as a current member of any branch of the military services. By returning employer registration forms and using the facilities or services of the Career Services Office, prospective employers are providing assurance of their commitment to observe the principles of equal opportunity stated above. Complaints that employers using the Career Services Office have failed to comply with this Law School policy will be investigated and, where deemed appropriate, sanctions, such as censure or exclusion, may be imposed. The portion of the Law School policy applicable to sexual orientation will not be applied to military employers.

Do law firms sign these statements and then simply ignore them? I suspect so and due to the Bar's utter failure to support LGBT attorneys the result is that out gays and lesbians remain invisible within almost all of the state's large law firms.

What is the solution? I'm not sure. The good old boy system remains so incredibly entrenched. Even women face daunting hurdles in reaching leadership positions in large firms. My former classmate, Elizabeth B. Lacy, the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court of Virginia, remains concerned about the relative scarcity of women on the bench and at the helm of law firms and has said the following on the situation on women in large law firms:

"The larger law firms in this country have a tremendous impact in a number of different ways," she said. For one, they have access to the legislative halls, which gives them influence on the direction of the justice system and legal profession. "Women need to be part of this." In addition to the perspectives they contribute to issues, the presence of women in leadership and on the bench has a "hugely symbolic aspect," she said."How many young black men now think they can be president, when they didn't think that before?"

What is also alarming is the attitude of members of the Virginia Bar as expressed in letters to the Virginia Lawyer. Far too many seem to condemn the diversity initiative even as pathetic as it is and would like to see the effort ended. Here is a representative example of such sentiments from an attorney in Fairfax, Virginia:

I have read with growing concern the columns in Virginia Lawyer of Virginia State Bar President Manuel A. Capasalis, beginning in July and continuing in October and December, concerning his Diversity Initiative.

First, it is sophistry. It is marked by his repeated statements of urgent personal belief in "diversity" and his affront and condescension to anyone who questions his meaning or firm intention. . . . If Mr. Capsalis has evidence that the bar or the courts routinely or systematically discriminate against persons or groups based on race, sex, or national origin, let him put on his evidence and make his case as any other lawyer is required to do.

Mr. Capsalis offers us little glimpses at it--that it involves "taking into account gender, race, and heritage" in the administration of justice and the practice of law. But he is quick to close the curtain, noting that the "transcendent ideal of diversity" cannot be captured; it must be free to fly to the heavens or wherever it will.

I urge Mr. Capsalis to disband the Diversity Task Force, withdraw its proposals to the bar council, and cease funding or supporting it immediately. If, in his conscience, he believes that he cannot abandon this initiative, then let him have the honor and courage to resign and pursue it on his own with his own resources.

The writer wants proof?

I regularly receive calls from LGBT Virginians seeking legal counsel who report that they have been rejected as clients as soon as their sexual orientation becomes known. I even have one local Circuit Court that refers transgender individuals seeking to have their birth certificates amended to me because I am the only attorney they know who will take on that type of matter.

The sad truth is that many members of the Virginia Bar continue to be racists who also discriminate based on gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation. If there is anything wrong with the Bar's diversity effort it is that it goes nowhere near far enough in addressing the discriminatory reality of how lawyers and law firms select clients, hire new attorneys, and select firm partners, respectively.

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