|President's Page||The West Virginia Lawyer||December 1999
by Darrell W. (Dan) Ringer
"Who are we? Who should we be?"
The 1900's are ending this month. If there will ever be a time in our lives when we should be contemplative and to reflect on where we as individuals, a profession, a society, a civilization have been, and where we are going, this is it.
Several things have happened recently that have caused me to believe that we can no longer simply talk about what others should do. We can no longer simply file lawsuits to compel equal treatment and opportunity. If we are going to talk the talk, we must walk the walk. We, as a profession must take a pro-active role to ensure that we encourage, promote and cause equal treatment and opportunity within our own profession.
In October I attended the Southern Conference of Bar Presidents annual meeting, this year in Memphis, Tennessee. While there I heard an address from William Paul, president of the American Bar Association. His topic was diversity in the legal profession. I also heard an address by the Reverend Benjamin Hooks. He has been, of course, deeply involved in the civil rights movement all of his life, and was a criminal court judge in Memphis when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was murdered. And I toured the National Civil Rights Museum.
I grew up in the 1960's. I graduated from high school in 1966, and college in 1971. But by October 1999 I had pretty much forgotten those years. I was thoroughly reminded of them in Memphis. I stood where Dr. King died, while looking in the window from which his murderer shot.
When I returned to West Virginia after the Memphis trip I attended a West Virginia University College of Law Visiting Committee meeting at which I learned of the Law Schoolís relative success in promoting the admittance and attendance of women and racial minorities. They have enjoyed great success in helping women to enter the practice of law, but have not been so successful in gaining the attendance of the minority students they seek. The pool and resources of qualified candidates are not large enough to fill all of the places available to them.
When the 1900's started women were legally chattel. African Americans were not ó but only in a de jure sense. In a de facto sense they were. Asian Americans lived in Chinatown ó and every major city with a significant population of Asian ancestry had a Chinatown.
By the mid-1900's women were gaining some rights, Japanese Americans were in, or just getting out of concentration camps, although we called them internment camps, and African Americans were granted the right to die for America in time of war in integrated military units. They had few other actual rights.
As we come to the close of this century, it has been announced that as of this year there is no racial group comprising a majority in the State of California. No single group makes up more than half of the population. By the middle of the coming century it is estimated that no racial group will a majority in the United States.
The practice of law is predominantly the domain of white people, and it is not changing as it should to keep pace with the changing population of our country.
I know why I am a lawyer. I can point to a very specific event. I was not raised around lawyers. As far as I know the only lawyer I had actually ever met was WVU Law Professor Londo Brown. His son, Claude, and I were friends in high school and college. Londo seemed to me to be a nice person (he was, in fact), and he and his wife Lera treated me well when I was in their home. One day, in my senior year of college, Claude asked me if I would like to go with him while he registered to take the LSAT. I did, and signed up myself, just to see how I would do. I did pretty well, and after a few side trips ended up at WVU studying law. I think I made the right choice.
I made that choice because the one lawyer I actually had met was nice to me. He treated me as a worthy person, and was he was someone worthy of emulation.
As I write this I am sitting in the audience seats at Heinz Hall, in Pittsburgh. Except for me the seats are empty. The house lights are off, and only the stage lights are on. I am at a rehearsal of the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra. On the stage are 90 young people, between the ages of 12 and 21. All are very fine musicians. Among the best, for their ages, in the country. Many are the best. And they are from every identifiable racial group and nationality. When I look on the stage I see white, yellow, black, brown and tan faces. I see Asian, African, European and American faces. Each is here because of their ability. Each had to perform to be here. And each is excellent.
These young musicians have gotten here because at some point they came to believe that they could be here. Maybe it was their parent or parents who helped them have faith in themselves. Maybe they talked to a teacher who encouraged them. Whatever it was, they came to believe it was possible. Without regard to race or nationality.
Human beings are odd creatures. We frequently cannot do things until we come to believe that the thing we want to do is possible. But once we believe in the possibility, we set a goal, and goals we accomplish.
If the legal profession is to be creditable and relevant, the goal we must set to bring our profession into the 21st century is to make it correctly reflect the people it serves. We must increase the size of the pool of applicants qualified to enter the profession. The way to accomplish that goal is to help our young people, the people of the 21st century, set their goals.
Our young people, and particularly our minority group young people must come to expect and know that lawyers are important to our society, that lawyers are worthy of emulation, and that THEY can become lawyers. The only way that can happen is for them to meet lawyers, and get to know us. We must be where they are. We must go into the schools and youth groups in our capacity as lawyers. We need to do more that look for qualified college seniors. We must create qualified seniors, and we must start that process in the middle school years, and even before. Our role with children will vary depending upon their ages, but we must be there.
We must form a cooperative effort between the schools, the communities and the State Bar to bring lawyers, and particularly young and minority lawyers and law students to our youth. Where they can see us, get to know us, and learn that they are just like us and can become what we are.
To that end, I call upon the State Bar, the College of Law, and every other organized group of lawyers to meet together, to consider the problem, and to design and implement a program for our young people, and particularly for our minority young to allow them to believe in the possibilities of their lives. It will not be a simple process, an easy process, nor a quick process. But neither was the civil rights movement. Itís not over yet. If fact, this is a part of it.