A new non-profit may be the key to increasing diversity in Nebraska’s legal professions, officials say.
The Nebraska Legal Diversity Council was formed in late 2021 as a partnership between Nebraska Law, Creighton Law and the Nebraska State Bar Association with the overarching goal of increasing the number of practicing lawyers of color in Nebraska.
To do that, the council will focus on increasing the number of young people of color interested in attending and graduating from Nebraska Law and Creighton Law and providing support for current practitioners of color and for employers looking to recruit and hire diverse candidates, said Shawntal Mallory, the council’s executive director.
This isn’t the first initiative to tackle diversity in the legal profession in Nebraska, but Mallory and others said they think the council will be able to avoid some past obstacles.
The Nebraska State Bar Association and the Nebraska Supreme Court began working on diversity efforts in 2003 through the Minority Justice Committee, which became inactive in 2013 due to budget cuts, and then through the Committee on Equity and Fairness, which was created in 2017.
Both Creighton Law and Nebraska Law also have their own diversity and inclusion efforts, as do many Nebraska law firms.
However, Liz Neely, executive director of the Nebraska State Bar Association, said she thinks part of the reason Nebraska hasn’t been able to move the needle on diversity and inclusion as much as hoped for is because of a lack of collaboration between the bar association, law firms and law schools.
“We’ve kind of come to the conclusion that you can’t achieve real success or progress by operating in silos,” she said. “What I’m excited about the Nebraska Legal Diversity Council is that we’re all committed to working together.”
Mallory said she thinks the council’s structure as a nonprofit will help lead to real change. The council members are not appointed but instead represent the organizations funding the work, and they will collectively decide the direction of the organization, she said. The council also has a single goal, instead of functioning as a committee that’s part of a larger organization.
“We want to prioritize diversification of the practice of law in our state through the creation of a comprehensive collective impact organization that can address many issues that cause this problem,” she said. “Rather than just one committee that may operate with volunteers and lack funding and time commitment.”
Mallory, an actively practicing attorney and adjunct professor at Creighton Law with a background in diversity and inclusion efforts, was named executive director in November. She is an Omaha native and Creighton graduate.
The council’s executive board includes Neely, Richard Moberly, dean of Nebraska Law; Joshua Fershée, dean of Creighton Law; Yvonne Sosa, assistant federal defender with the Office of the Federal Public Defender; Jeremy Christensen, a partner at Baird Holm; and Gretchen McGill, a partner at Dvorak Law Group.
Outside of the executive board, the council is also working with several other Nebraska law firms and companies that provide financial support and have input.
One of the first things Neely said she hopes the council can accomplish is collecting conclusive data on the number of lawyers of color in Nebraska. Neely said the current statistics are missing racial data from about 20% of the state’s lawyers.
The Nebraska Law student population was about 10% minority students as of October 2021, and about 9% of degrees awarded from 2020 to 2021 were to people of color, according to the school’s 2021 information report. The Creighton Law students population was about 22% students of color as of October 2021, and about 17% degrees awarded from 2020 to 2021 were to people of color, according to the school’s 2021 information report.
Some potential strategies for increasing diversity at the state’s law schools include hiring more staff and faculty of color and pipeline efforts for high school students such as like mock trial participation, mentoring programs, scholarships and shadowing and exploration programs.
Nebraska Law’s Moberly said increasing the number of lawyers of color in Nebraska will help the field better represent the people it serves.
“Increasing diversity in the legal field is important because we need to make sure that a diverse set of voices and experiences are represented in our profession,” he said.
Representation in the legal field is especially important to creating trust with clients, Mallory said.
“I think it’s comfortable for them when they can walk in and see that there’s representation,” she said. “When they see people who look like them and understand their lived experience, there’s just kind of an automatic trust there.”
Mallory said she has seen diversity in the field of law in Nebraska improve since she started her career, especially with gender representation.
“We’ve really made a lot of great strides as it pertains in Nebraska to women,” she said. “So if we can learn some of the lessons from what we did to increase women representation within the field and apply some of that to practitioners of color, I think that would be a win-win for our profession.”
As she interacts with students through her Race and Justice class at Creighton, Mallory said she also feels optimistic about how the next generation of law professionals views diversity and inclusion.
“I’m noticing that students are very vocal about their desire to see more diversity, equity and inclusion in the law school environment,” she said.
The council is currently focused on establishing the framework for what they want to accomplish and deciding on what they want to tackle first. The council will hold its first retreat on March 1.
“I think that Nebraska is a wonderful place to live to practice law,” Mallory said. “And the more diverse minds we can bring into our profession, the better and more rich our profession is.”