When Will We Stop Counting? — The Numbers Still Matter to Florida Bar President Michelle R. Suskauer
I am often introduced as the sixth woman president of The Florida Bar. When will we stop counting how many women have been president of The Florida Bar? How many women are in the judiciary? How many serve in the legislature? How many are equity partners? Unfortunately, the numbers still matter.
As I travel the state, I constantly hear stories from fellow women lawyers who are mistaken as court reporters, clerks, clients — anything but an attorney or judge. As a matter of fact, most of the women I speak to have had similar experiences. It’s happened to me a several times. On my very first day as an assistant public defender more than 20 years ago, I was asked if I was the court interpreter. I wonder how so much can change while so much stays the same?
One day in the not-so-distant future, it will not be unusual to see a woman at the Bar’s helm. In fact, there may be too many to count. But we’re not there yet. Recent ABA findings are quite revealing about gender differences in the legal profession. Last year’s statistics from the ABA’s project, “Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in the Law,” speak for themselves. The ABA revealed that only 19 percent of women make up equity partners. Also, women over 50 comprise only 27 percent of lawyers at firms. Women are choosing to abandon the law at the height of their careers, when they should be striving to become equity partners. These numbers are staggering. That is why during my term, it was a priority to increase the number of women appointed to leadership positions in Bar committees — because women need to see other women lead. Currently, 52 percent of Florida Bar committee chairs and vice chairs are women, the highest percentage ever. My appointments to Bar leadership positions reflect an ongoing trend to encourage diversity, and we are gradually seeing changes in the makeup of leadership on all committees.
The Bar strives to improve diversity in all facets of the legal profession, including the judiciary. The Diversity and Inclusion Committee, going strong with 163 members, is the third-largest committee of The Florida Bar. Led by Chair Nikki Lewis Simon, the committee’s mission is to promote diversity in the legal profession in order to accurately reflect the demographics of Florida. The committee also develops ideas to ensure leadership roles are accessible to all lawyers no matter their gender, racial, ethnic, or cultural backgrounds, and to get more lawyers involved in their communities. The committee has made great strides on several up-and-coming projects, including a gender bias toolkit for law firms containing research, best practices, and advice on how to interrupt bias in the workplace. The sky’s the limit for this committee in promoting and celebrating diversity.
As part of the Bar’s effort to support the issue of diversity and inclusion, the Wm. Reece Smith, Jr. Leadership Academy continues to pave the way as a training program for a diverse and talented group of future Florida Bar leaders. The seventh leadership class begins in June. Fellows meet every other month during their one-year term and are required to complete a project that encourages leadership skills and the general enhancement of the legal profession. One project that stands out is the Diversity and Inclusion Toolkit. This toolkit explores diversity and inclusion in a broader context and contains links to helpful resources, including the ABA’s implicit bias toolkit, the ABA program evaluation tool, and the ABA diversity and inclusion program self-assessment tool.
Another excellent program instituted by the Bar is its Voluntary Bar Association Diversity Leadership Grant Program, in which portions of $50,000 are granted to bar associations that implement projects that foster an inclusive environment for lawyers. Bar associations can win grants between $1,500 and $3,000 for goodwill projects in their communities that are designed with inclusion and diversity in mind, so lawyers can succeed in their professional lives regardless of their backgrounds.
Creating awareness about diversity and inclusion issues is just the beginning. It is important to remember that achieving lasting, meaningful change is a marathon, not a sprint, and it will take all of us working together, women and men, to realize our goals. The Florida Bar is committed to ensuring that everyone has a chance to succeed and that equal access and opportunities are provided to all lawyers, including minority lawyers, women lawyers, lawyers with disabilities, and LGBT lawyers. With that goal in mind, we will continue our efforts to encourage and promote diversity in the legal profession. Our days of counting are numbered.