By Haley Licata
In 1869, a group of 32 black attorneys united to create the Cook County Bar Association (CCBA), the first black bar association in the United States.
Although there were fewer official barriers to the practice of law in Illinois than in other states, prejudice and institutionalized racism limited opportunities for black people in the Chicago legal community, those close to the bar group said.
H. Yvonne Coleman, today's CCBA executive director, said the group formed "at a time when black lawyers were excluded from membership in The Chicago Bar Association and the American Bar Association. Thus, the CCBA has its origin in diversity and inclusion."
Since its founding, numerous other bar groups formed to advocate for the needs of Chicago's minority communities. They continue to make great advances in promoting diversity and equality within the legal profession.
Chicago Lawyer spoke to lawyers from five area minority bar associations to learn more about these organizations and discover how they advance the cause of diversity in Chicago's legal community.
Serving new communities
When asked why minority bar groups remain important to the legal community, attorney Beibei Que shared this story.
"Last year, I was the primary counsel in a medical-malpractice case in Cook County Circuit Court," Que said. "When I approached the bench, the judge cautioned, 'Sweetie, paralegals aren't allowed to approach the bench. Why don't you go get your attorney?'"
Que joined the Chinese American Bar Association (CABA) of Greater Chicago because she wanted to meet attorneys who share her cultural background.
"Asian lawyers account for less than 5 percent of the bar," she said about the Illinois Bar.
She said she enjoys attending the group's mixers and also participates regularly in law days for the Chinatown community. The CABA event series offers free legal service and guidance to Chinese immigrants and non-English speaking populations in Chicago.
"I feel very strongly about these events because of my own upbringing," she said. "When my family first came to this country, we were outsiders who were unfamiliar with the system and, to be honest with you, that is an intimidating experience.
"Issues like this are not as near and dear to the bar at large, so I think a big function of minority bar associations is to pay attention to communities that might otherwise be neglected."
CABA formed in 1986 under the leadership of it first president, Therese Yee, said CABA President Gary Zhao.
Over time, it grew into an organization of about 150 members and recently renewed its long-time affiliation with the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, which currently represents some 40,000 Asian Pacific-American lawyers.
Zhao said he considers the organization's public service achievements as a key component of the group's mission.
"Current and former CABA board members were influential in community building efforts such as reinstating Asian-American businesses in the city of Chicago minority contracting program … " he said. "CABA has also supported local efforts for immigration reform."
CABA can positively affect diversity in the legal community through, for example, its scholarship pools that encourage Chinese-American students to apply for and pursue a legal education, Que said.
Minority bar associations can also gain more of a role in the legal community, she said, "by promoting leaders internally. We are very fortunate now to have a handful of judges in Chicago that are from Chinese-American ethnic backgrounds and their elevation to the bench has had a clear impact on the momentum behind this community."
Seeing significant growth
After working a couple years as a junior associate, Sangmee Lee, an attorney with K&L Gates, decided to join the Korean American Bar Association (KABA) of Chicago because she wanted to do more networking.
"I had my friends from work and from law school, but I had not really met anyone outside my circle since graduation," Lee said. "I started making a concerted effect to attend various events put on by different bar associations, including KABA.
"Attending my first KABA event was really the first time I realized just how many Korean-American attorneys there were in Chicago. Not only did I enjoy going to KABA's events, I had the opportunity to meet Korean-American attorneys like myself, but who worked in various places and in a wide variety of fields."
KABA President Sam Park said his organization "was founded in 1993 by just a handful of pioneering Korean-American attorneys in Chicago. One of those attorneys was Judge Young B. Kim of the Northern District of Illinois, who continues to be on the board of KABA today."
"Over the years," Park said, "KABA remained small until more recently when we have seen a significant growth of our members."
Today the group includes about 250 lawyers.
Although KABA's focus expanded as the organization grew, its primary focus remains social and professional networking.
The chance to convene with other Korean-American lawyers "makes stronger and better attorneys out of us, which is a benefit to the entire legal community," Park said.
"Until recently, there were not that many Korean-American lawyers. A lot of us don't have family members, parents, childhood friends or other contacts within their immediate circle of acquaintances who are lawyers and from whom they can seek informal guidance. KABA is a surrogate family in that regard."
Lee, from K&L Gates, said minority bar associations provide professional development, networking and mentorship opportunities to minority and nonminority attorneys and law students. They also provide service to the community at large.
"Just the fact that such minority bar associations exist shows how diverse the legal community has become," she said. "By having networking events, putting on educational programs, giving back to the community and reaching out to law students and attorneys alike, bar associates are making the legal community more accessible to everyone.
"Additionally, many bar associations support various nominees or candidates for judicial appointments or elections and also issue press releases about legislation and court decisions — giving a certain type of legal community a political voice that it may otherwise lack."
Fellowship became a driving factor behind the formation of the Indian-American Bar Association (IABA) of Chicago nearly a decade ago, when South Asian lawyers were a rarity in Chicago's legal community, said those close to the group.
Since then, membership grew to 350 lawyers.
For IABA President Salman Azam, networking and community outreach remain important to the group.
"In-group networking provides a competitive edge and word-of-mouth marketing that is effective both in terms of cost and confidence," Azam said.
The organization maintains a partnership with Apna Ghar, a domestic violence shelter on Chicago's North Side where the group's lawyers volunteer their legal assistance.
IABA also hosts a number of events, such as Continuing Legal Education seminars, work-life balance workshops and community service opportunities that serve the general membership.
"IABA has run a pro bono legal clinic with the Indo-American Center for several years now on Devon Avenue where our attorney members have volunteered countless hours of volunteer time to better serve the legal needs of the underprivileged in our community," he said.
Poonam Khatri, an attorney at The Prinz Law Firm, joined IABA in law school because she did not know many Indian-American attorneys and wanted to find a mentor or role model.
Both as a general member and board member, she volunteered at IABA's Cyriac D. Kappil Legal Clinic at the Indo-American Center. She also participated in CLE, networking and community service events.
"Minority bar associations are important to give a voice to the group they represent," she said.
"When there are injustices or issues which need to be addressed, the bar association can help bring those issues to light. For example, many Indians are exploited and forced to work for substandard wages and treated inhumanely.
"Minority bar associations also help support the growth of diversity within the legal community. Law firms can benefit greatly from diversity. Many clients prefer to work with law firms where diversity is a priority. In addition, attorneys from diverse backgrounds bring different skill sets and experiences to the table, which results in better service to clients."
Doing its part
Illinois Assistant Attorney General Charles Gladfelter joined the Asian American Bar Association (AABA) of Greater Chicago to become more involved in the Asian-American community and to network with other Asian-American attorneys.
Judge Laura Liu (left) talked with Mehpara A. Suleman, then- president of the Asian American Bar Association of Greater Chicago, at the group's New Judges Reception on June 28.
Photo by Natalie Battaglia.
Gladfelter said he participates in the group's social events and develops mentoring relationships that remain crucial to younger attorneys like him.
"Minority bar associations can increase and encourage diversity in the legal community in several ways," Gladfelter said. "First, they enable minority attorneys to become more involved in minority bar associations as well as other legal organizations in the area. Second, they provide a platform for minority attorneys to become leaders in the legal community. Third, they provide scholarships to encourage minority law students and promote diversity in the profession."
AABA organized officially in 1987, said immediate past President Mehpara Suleman, "when Asian-Americans were an afterthought in the legal and political arena."
"We have grown to one of the Chicago area's largest ethnic bar associations with a general membership list of about 900. Our active membership list fluctuates between approximately 150 and 200 depending on the time of the year," Suleman said.
AABA, for example, sponsored two CLE classes: "How to Become a Certified Minority Business Enterprise" and "New Lawyers' Guide on How to Practice in Federal Court."
"Our Judicial Development Committee addresses the shortage of Asian-Americans in the judiciary by educating members and the community about the judicial appointment and election process," Suleman said.
"It serves as a resource to decision-makers by providing ready access to qualified judicial candidates. The committee also evaluates and participates in interviews with judicial candidates requesting letters of support from (the) AABA."
Minority bar associations provide unique perspectives that may otherwise not be included in the legal community, Gladfelter said.
The involvement and participation of minority bar associations also increases the diversity of the legal community to better reflect the diversity of the overall population, he said.
"Minority bar associations can gain more of a role in the legal community in two ways," he said.
"First, they can continue to partner with larger organizations to sponsor and host events that will attract other members of the legal community as well as members of the community-at-large. Second, they can encourage and support minority attorneys that seek legal and community leadership roles."
A storied legacy
Former CCBA President Zeophus Williams described the group's activism during the 1960s.
"In 1961, CCBA recommended, at the request of Illinois Senator Paul H. Douglas, seven names for two vacancies on the U.S. Federal District Court in Chicago," Williams said. "The Honorable James B. Parsons was one of the seven, and Parsons became the first black federal district court judge."
That same year, Williams said, " Sidney A. Jones Jr. and Henry C. Ferguson (both CCBA past presidents) were among the first four black judges in the state of Illinois.In 1961, four black judges was the highest (number) in Illinois history."
Coleman, CCBA's executive director, said the organization tries to pursue the common goals and interests of its membership and foster camaraderie among those in the group.
She said the group also tries to "improve the economic and social status of black attorneys, develop mechanisms to influence and impact issues of public policy and produce leaders for the African-American community."
CCBA also provides a number of community outreach endeavors, such as the Expungement Project, in which participating attorneys offer pro bono assistance to juvenile offenders and adult indigents who are seeking to seal or expunge their criminal records.
It serves members, she said, through "our annual scholarship program; our reception for newly admitted lawyers; our lawyer-to-lawyer mentoring program; our nationally renowned Minority Job Fair; and the various diversity programs we sponsor with area law schools."
Though Chicago's many minority bar associations each serve a distinct group within the city's legal community, some of the more established organizations offer scholarships and stipends as a way of easing access to the legal profession.
Marion V. Cruz addressed the members of the Asian American Bar Association after she was sworn in as the group's president during its 25th Anniversary Celebration and Installation Gala Dinner on Aug. 18. Cruz is an attorney at James D. Montgomery & Associates.
Photo by Ralph Greenslade.
The CCBA Foundation and KABA both offer diversity scholarships to law students attending area institutions.
AABA and IABA both provide stipends to encourage students to take less lucrative jobs in the pro bono and public interest spheres.
"Every year, IABA awards a $2,500 fellowship grant to a law student that spends their summer working in the public interest field," said Azam, president of the group.
"We just awarded the 2012 fellowship grant to a second-year DePaul law student who will be working with the Women's All Points Bulletin, which is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to eradicating all forms of violence against women during policing encounters."
Minority bar associations also work to ease the transition between law school and the legal practice through mentorship programs.
The Hispanic Lawyers Association of Illinois offers the JD Mentors program, described on the organization's website as "three-person mentor groups, typically comprised of a college student, a law student and a practicing attorney, with similar career goals or interests.
"This three-tiered team mentoring approach is used in lieu of the traditional one-on-one mentor relationship because it allows each of the participants at different stages in their careers to add a unique and helpful component to the overall mentor-mentee relationship."
After minority lawyers have gained a foothold in their career, the voluntary bar associations serving them continue to provide opportunities for socializing and professional development.
For example, CABA hosted its annual installation reception in May.
"A highlight of the reception was honoring Judges Edmond Chang and Laura Liu, the first Article 3 judge and the first Cook County Circuit Court judge, respectively, of Chinese descent," Zhao said. "They performed the swearing in of CABA's current officers and board of directors."
Room to grow
Despite all of the associations' hard work they face a challenge in improving diversity.
"Women and Minorities in Large Law Firms — By Race and Ethnicity," a January 2012 report from the Association for Legal Career Professionals (NALP), says that only 5.89 percent of the partners at Chicago law firms are minorities.
That number is slightly better among associates who account for 17.01 percent, the study says.
However, neither number comes close to matching the minority demographic data for the city at large, which the 2010 U.S. Census says has a 58 percent nonwhite population.
Leslie Richards-Yellen, chairwoman of the Chicago Committee on Minorities in Large Law Firms and chief diversity and inclusion officer at Hinshaw & Culbertson, said for law firms to truly diversify, they must "expand beyond the 'firsts,' such as first diverse partner in a firm, to the 'many,' such as a strong cadre of diverse attorneys in each organization."
"Minority bars are great at providing thought leadership that challenges the status quo and that promotes the evolution of the legal profession," she said.
"Efforts are underway in most minority bar associations to provide diverse attorneys with effective strategies and insights so that they will be able to identify the challenges they face, enhance the odds of overcoming these challenges and be able to successfully position themselves within their organizations," Richards-Yellen said.
"The next level for minority bar associations is to create synergies with managing partners, general counsel and practice group leaders that lead to institutional change. This institutional change will enhance the odds that more diverse attorneys will succeed."