How Bar Associations Are Agents Of Change

Friday, February 1, 2008 - 01:00

Editor: Would you please tell our readers about your background?

Millett: I have a combined fifteen years of experience in environmental law, and ten years in law enforcement with state and municipal governments. Before joining the firm, I was General Counsel to the Interstate Environmental Commission; before that I was an Assistant Counsel with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. My law enforcement background began in Queens County, where I served as an Assistant District Attorney. I also served as an Inspector General for New York City's Department of Personnel and was an Assistant Deputy Commissioner for Trials in the New York City Police Department.

Editor: What led you to the New York State Bar Association?

Millett: Through bar associations I have metthose people who most inspire me and who are generally the most respected within the legal profession. It is my view that the people who serve on selection committees and make decisions about judges and the like are very often the same people who are active in bar associations, so it seemed politic for me to be involved and to follow that route. I've also lived in upstate New York for ten years, and I am acutely aware of the differences between downstate and upstate points of view, so I wanted to be part of an organization that could accommodate both. I have always been an active bar association participant in majority bar associations - such as the CityBar, the ABA and the Women's Bar - as well as minority bar associations such as the Metropolitan Black Bar Association, on whose board of trustees I served. I was also a trustee of the Association of Black Women Attorneys.

Editor: Among the activities you have participated in as a member of an association, which have you found particularly rewarding?

Millett: I serve on the executive committee of the Environmental Section of the New York State Bar, having been a member of that section for about 15 years. I co-chaired the Minority Scholarship program which is a joint program of the CityBar that gives five thousand dollar stipends to minority students who live in or attend school in New York state. I'm happy to report that one of our selectees, a young woman of color, recently joined Nixon Peabody's environmental group. The objective of that scholarship program is to bring minorities into environmental practice, which is a practice that deals with infrastructure issues affecting everybody. We had not seen many minority practitioners in that area, so this program was established 20 years ago to make that happen. We have enjoyed some modest successes.

I am also an editor of the New York State Bar Journal, which is published ten times a year by the NYSBA, and for four years I have served as a CityBar delegate to the NYSBA's House of Delegates. While the most demanding part of the job is that you are given reams of material to plow through, I must say that I find that part to be most engaging, because one has the opportunity to get a very close view of what is going on in different practice areas and what is happening with cutting edge issues in the profession that impact everyone across the state. This is not an opportunity we get in our specialized practice areas, which are much more narrowly drawn.

Editor: As the first woman of color to serve on the Executive Committee in 130 years, what do you hope to accomplish at the NYSBA?

Millett: For one, it would be my hope that if Charlotte Ray - who, in 1872, became the first African American woman to be admitted to the bar in the U.S. - is watching, she would say we should continue to take "small but necessary steps" until we can get past needing diversity programs. My goal is to reach what I call "natural inclusion," to reach a point when structured and measured programs to achieve diversity are no longer necessary, when we can dispense with distinguishing people. We are not there yet.

In looking to bring diversity to the leadership ranks of our association, the NYSBA followed the model of the ABA's diversity program, which was actually initiated to attract minorities and women to the ABA. That program has been very successful in attracting women to officer ranks, there having been several female presidents. (They've been less successful with minorities, although recently the first female African American officer was elected.) There have been two male presidents of color (men) at the NYSBA. I think it's time that we have a woman of color sitting at the table; heretofore we have not had a voice. I am filling what the NYSBA refers to as a "Diversity"-At-Large seat. It's a distinction whose time has come and gone. Of course, I am a woman of color, however, my seat at the table should not be thought of differently from any other Executive Committee slot. Historically there has always been some tension between speaking in universal terms and speaking in race-specific terms about the plight of African American community inclusion. I find I am more likely to speak in universal terms, perhaps in part because I am a product of a bilingual and bicultural home. My mother is Cuban and my father is from Trinidad. I grew up hearing a different language spoken around me, as well as English, and so I hope I represent many different voices, despite assumptions people may make about my physical appearance.

Editor: Would you like to comment on the ABA Women of Color study?

Millett: I was first of all very pleased to see that the ABA Commission on Women undertook this study, "Visible Invisibility" - the title itself tells a tale - and published their results. The startling statistic for me was that by the year 2005, 81% of women of color had left their law firms within five years of being hired. The ABA study didn't examine the reasons, so we would have to speculate and look at the numbers of white women and men who are leaving law firm practice. For now, from a practical perspective, I believe that while all of us clearly need the help of others, we also need to look at ourselves. We should be observant about "in groups" and "out groups," which probably exist in every corporate construct, but particularly in law firms and departments. We should make our best efforts to be part of the in groups, or to give help to the outside group. For me, that means not isolating yourself. It means taking the initiative, and here mentoring is key. Again, mentoring also works both ways.

Sometimes there really is self-selection, but it is most desirable to have people in the majority group come to you and seek you out for mentoring. My advice, however, in selecting mentors, would be to create your own "personal board of directors" - 8 to 10 people to give you advice on both your professional and your personal life. We're attorneys, natural advocates, and we need to learn to advocate for ourselves, and that means taking the initiative to find people who will help us. We attorneys tend to think we know how to succeed: we say to ourselves, "I understand the substantive practice area. What other help could I possibly need?" The answer? We all need help. We tend to feel inadequate when we go to someone to ask for help. It's natural, but we need to get past this.

Editor: What structured programs or measurable goals has the NYSBA used to achieve diversity and inclusion?

Millett: To encourage diversity in the leadership ranks of the association, two years ago the NYSBA instituted a leadership forum; they also began hosting diversity receptions to encourage membership in the sections, as one of the paths to leadership.These are different programs.

Local bar associations all over the state select 275 people for the House of Delegates (HOD), and, with attendance around 150 people or more, standing up to speak at meetings can be intimidating for a first-time member. In addition to reading the vast amount of material I mentioned earlier, if you wish to state a position on a Committee report , you must get up before the entire room, identify yourself and your delegate affiliation and then indicate your position on a particular issue. This is especially daunting if no one has told you what to expect. It's like being on the floor of Congress. The diversity forums were designed to let people know how one should maneuver and what one should do to gain traction as a delegate to the HOD and how to move up the leadership ranks. Many past presidents and officers attend these receptions to help educate delegates on the substantive activities of the House. To encourage diversity in the membership ranks, the NYSBA hosts an annual diversity reception. It has also made it incumbent upon the Sections to encourage diversity and to require the Sections to report on those efforts.

These days, the great challenge facing the association is to look at hard numbers and hard data and reap some conclusions about whether their efforts have been successful. At our annual meeting we now host a diversity reception which has been hugely successful in terms of drawing people to the bar association and encouraging them to join Sections.

Editor: Do you think the NYSBA has gained traction with its other programs in achieving diversity?

Millett: If you look at sheer numbers, the answer would have to be yes. You'll see many more people of color in the audience at House of Delegates meetings. We have also been extremely successful with increasing the number of women in our ranks.

Editor: Do you have an active mentoring program at the firm?

Millett: We do have a formal diversity initiative that has been underway for years, culminating in the appointment of Luis Diaz, who is a firm director, as CDO. He will be responsible for accountability -making sure that not only do the programs get implemented and followed through, but also measuring the results. He will also try to keep ideas fresh and moving, so we don't get complacent. Our diversity initiative has involved a formal training and mentoring program, in which directors are paired with associates and affinity groups for African American and women attorneys, which allow for candid feedback in the context of regular meetings and social events. We also try to look outside Gibbons itself in order to strengthen diversity goals in the wider legal community, particularly in local law firms. We are Partners in Excellence with Seton Hall Law School, which seeks to expand opportunities for minorities in the classroom. We are a member of the Law Firm Group, which is devoted to advancing minority placement in New Jersey's legal community; we also belong to the MCCA, the Garden State GSBA, the Hispanic Bar, and the Human Rights Campaign. We are signatories to the Association of the Bar of the City of New York diversity principles.

It's important to remember that mentoring is not monolithic: formal mentoring programs are wonderful, but informal mentoring is in my mind just as important. You need to feel comfortable with the people with whom you work. It's so very helpful to attend a social event with someone, or perhaps visit a museum, go rock-climbing - whatever it is you can find in common with a colleague. In our minority environmental scholarship program at the NYSBA, we encouraged mentors and mentees to have dinner or perhaps see a play together.

Editor: Can you give us some examples of what you see as success in increased diversity in the legal profession?

Millett: For example, across the board in all law firms, almost 50 percent of associates are women - 15 percent of those are women of color and 4 percent of partners are minority women. Those are certainly metrics that indicate progress. If Gibbons is an example, I am the third female partner of color currently at the firm, and I think that's progress. We have reached the 10 percent mark for minority attorneys at the firm. If we are to reach what I would call "natural inclusion," we need to have measurable goals and reporting, and we need to have people at the executive levels involved in accountability.

Please email the interviewee at emillett@gibbonslaw.com with questions about this interview.