New American Bar Association President Paulette Brown at the ABA Annual Meeting. (PHOTO: )

Three months after the first African American woman was confirmed as the nation's attorney general, another is starting her term as president of the nation's largest professional association of lawyers.

Paulette Brown, a labor and employment law partner at the firm Locke Lord LLP in Morristown, N.J., took office Tuesday as the American Bar Association's first African American female president, a role she was elected to a year ago. Brown says a focus on diversity issues will be one of her top goals during her one-year tenure.

Her intention is not only to recruit and retain more women and minorities into a field that lags behind other professions in terms of diversity. Brown also says she wants to help shore up the nation's faith in a justice system that has come under fire following its handling of several high-profile incidents involving the deaths of African Americans over the last year, such as those in Ferguson, Missouri and New York.

"People of all races appear to be having less confidence in law enforcement," Brown said in an interview with The Washington Post. "We have an obligation to understand that and speak out on those issues, and that is what we’re planning to do." 

Brown's plans include developing more guidelines on diversity and inclusion efforts for the ABA, creating implicit bias training for prosecutors and public defenders, working with the Justice Department to highlight the consequences of guilty admissions for defendants, and focusing more on the pipeline of minorities and women who want to enter the field.

Her pipeline efforts, she says, will go beyond college and high school — extending into elementary schools and Boys & Girls Clubs as a way of reaching young people even earlier. The goal in doing so, Brown says, is not just to turn more young people onto careers in the law, but to help disrupt the flow of young people entering the prison system unnecessarily.

"We want to be ensuring kids are not channeled into prison for simple disciplinary actions," Brown said. She cited the case of an eight-year-old boy in Kentucky who was recently restrained using handcuffs. "The slightest disruption should not lead to a call for a police." If young people see the legal field's efforts to get involved in these issues, she added, "selfishly, maybe they'll be interested in becoming lawyers."

Brown's initiatives could help reframe the image of the country's legal field as a diversity holdout, one filled with fewer minorities than most other professions. In a recent Washington Post column, Stanford law professor Deborah Rhode detailed how the percentage of lawyers who are white is larger than it is for architects, engineers, accountants, physicians or surgeons.

Figures from the 2010 U.S. Census put the percentage of lawyers who are white at 88 percent.

"Many lawyers believe that barriers have come down, women and minorities have moved up, and any lingering inequality is a function of different capabilities, commitment and choices," Rhode said in the column. "The facts suggest otherwise."

Indeed, the ABA's diversity statistics reveal a big challenge for Brown's goals. A 2014 report by the ABA found that women make up roughly 45 percent of associate jobs at law firms. And yet only 20 percent of partners, 17 percent of equity partners, and just 4 percent of managing partners at the country's 200 largest firms are women.

Minority representation at top firms is even worse. According to industry publication The American Lawyer, only about 2 to 3 percent of partners at top law firms are African American, Asian American or Hispanic. The proportion of black lawyers at these firms is actually declining, a trend that has continued for five years.

Brown said the reason for the lag may be that the profession has seen more minorities enter the field, more law firms add diversity and inclusion programs, and more women hold national office, perhaps creating overconfidence in the strides the profession was making. But when compared with other fields, it's clear there's more to do.

Rhode, the Stanford professor, said in an interview that diversity among lawyers may be behind not because there hasn't been enough attention to it, but because there has been so much for so long. "In the legal profession, there's some real diversity fatigue," she said. "It's been on the agenda for a sufficient period now and we're not seeing payoffs in terms of the numbers. The pace is glacial, and I think that creates a sense of inertia and frustration."

She says Brown has an opportunity to help reinvigorate the issue. "She can take advantage of her bully pulpit. It’s a platform she can use to make these issues a priority and put resources behind them." Being an African American woman, she said, "gives her the possibility to speak with real credibility and from personal experience on these issues." 

Brown notes that she thinks it's important for white men to talk about the issue as well, crediting her predecessor for doing so, yet also thinks being the first African American woman in the role comes with a unique set of obligations. "Anyone who is ever first at anything has a responsibility to ensure they do the absolute best they can so other people will be receptive to having other people who look like me lead the organization."

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