The organization, which represents legal professionals in a judicial system that has been dogged by a lack of diversity, says it’s been making progress on the issue. But there’s lingering evidence that there’s still a long way to go.
The writing about diversity in the Oregon legal profession—or the lack of it—is literally on the wall in a Portland suburb.
The wall is located at the headquarters of the Oregon State Bar, where a large-scale timeline was unveiled in November to chronicle more than 100 years of history and the landmark events and people that have begun to bring more diversity to the state’s predominantly white, male law offices and courtrooms.
Most days, when you call a lawyer, it’s not your best day. The importance of having someone you can relate to and trust is critically important.
At a time when the fairness and inclusiveness of the legal system has been questioned anew by events from Ferguson, Missouri, to New York City, the “story wall” seems particularly relevant.
“Most days, when you call a lawyer, it’s not your best day,” Oregon State Bar spokeswoman Kateri Walsh told The Oregonian. “The importance of having someone you can relate to and trust is critically important.”
The story wall is part of an ongoing effort by the state bar to boost diversity in the Oregon legal profession. According to the organization’s latest demographic statistics, at the end of 2014 about 65 percent of members were men, and among members who identified a race or ethnicity, nearly 88 percent identified as white. Among racial minorities, 3.8 percent are Asian, 2.2 percent are Hispanic, 1 percent are black, and less than 1 percent are American Indian. About 4.4 percent identified as multiracial or other.
While the numbers for minority groups remain low, they represent significant progress for the state bar, which counted racial or ethnic minorities as less than 1 percent of its membership in 1976. Even so, racial diversity of the Oregon State Bar pales in comparison to the general population of the state, which is nearly a quarter nonwhite, according to the 2013 U.S. Census Bureau.
A Long Road
Diversification in the profession was slow at first. McCants Stewart became the first black registered lawyer in the state in 1903. The state appointed its first black judge, Aaron Brown, in 1969. Between 1976 and the 1990s, the percentage of nonwhite lawyers slowly began to grow, rising to to 3 percent, according to The Oregonian.
The turning point was a 1994 Oregon Supreme Court task force report [PDF] that alleged bias against racial and ethnic minorities in the state’s judicial system. The report served as a wake-up call.
Scholarships were recommended and offered, diversity and inclusiveness training was presented to departments of the current system, and minority law students were urged to stay in state. Fellowships and mentorships are also available. All of these programs have contributed to increasing racial diversity in the ranks of the state’s lawyers today.
The Oregon State Bar is now looking beyond racial and ethnic diversity. The group is also focusing on religion, gender, sexual identity, and disability in aiming to capture a fully inclusive membership. There’s plenty of work to be done on this front as well—a 2012 economic survey by the state bar noted that 3 percent of Oregon lawyers have a disability, and 4 percent identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Less than 1 percent of lawyers statewide identified as transgender.
Bar leaders say the fact that most lawyers in Oregon are still white men presents a reality check regarding the progress made so far.
“We have to stay constantly aware if we are to have our power structure and the make-up of our membership reflect the community we serve,” the Oregon Bar’s immediate past president, Tom Kranovich, told The Oregonian. “I don’t think we’ve reached those numbers yet. There’s still work to be done.”