If diversity and unity in Illinois’ legal profession could be reflected in a tableau, the image of bar association presidents from different backgrounds collectively pledging to promote diversity and collaboration in the legal profession would encompass those ideals.
That was the scene at the Diversity Scholarship Foundation, NFP’s Unity Gala & 20th Annual Swearing-In Ceremony of Bar Presidents, which was held in December in Chicago.
The annual gala recognizes those who have made significant contributions to the legal community and the community at large, including embracing diversity and the ideals diversity represents.
During the event, presidents or delegates from Illinois bar associations representing a variety of communities took an oath administered by Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary Jane Theis, who also received the 2022 Unity Award.
In front of the packed house of Illinois legal and judicial luminaries, they pledged to “uphold the ideals of my bar association as dictated by our bylaws, celebrating our commitment to promoting diversity, while furthering unity among my members and other bar associations, encouraging a spirit of friendship and cooperation.”
“It is always so inspiring to see the bar leaders come together and commit to ensuring the promotion of diversity within our legal community,” said Adam Miel Zebelian, President of LAGBAC – Chicago’s LGBTQ+ Bar Association. “It was truly an honor to take the oath on behalf of LAGBAC – Chicago’s LGBTQ+ Bar Association, and to affirm LAGBAC’s core purpose of furthering diversity, equity and inclusion within the profession.”
Bar associations as leaders in diversity
Diversity Scholarship Foundation President Justice Jesse Reyes, who serves in Illinois’ First District Appellate Court, said the oath and ceremony were created in the early 2000s in response to a lack of diversity in the legal profession and a belief that bar associations could play an integral role in helping address these disparities.
Justice Reyes said he hoped bar association presidents could be “spearheads in their various areas to promote diversity” both within their associations and among those with whom they interacted.
Jennifer Crespo, President of the Hispanic Lawyers Association of Illinois, said taking the oath was deeply personal.
“I took the oath of unity in the presence of my community as an earnest, serious reminder to be myself, particularly in situations that naturally trigger defensive and prideful reactions,” Crespo said.
She explained that “[a]s a woman of Puerto Rican and Filipina descent with great grandparents who were Jewish and Polish, my relationship with the concept of unity is more than a commitment. Unity is the story of my heritage. It is woven into the fabric of my lived human experience, and it is what encourages me to reject pride, ego, and apprehension and embrace compassion and empathy for my colleagues and myself. It was incredibly inspiring to stand on stage with dozens of my peers and friends as we swore to work together to promote one another and to advance equity and inclusion in the legal profession.”
The number of participating bar associations has grown during the past 20 years, according to Justice Reyes. Approximately 10 bar association presidents took the oath in 2002, and roughly 50 bar associations participated in the 2019 ceremony, which was held just before the pandemic.
“The Women’s Bar Association of Illinois has been a proud, longtime supporter of the Diversity Scholarship Foundation,” said Lauren Witkowski, president of the WBAI.
According to Witkowski, “the WBAI’s mission is to support, foster and advance women lawyers,” and “the Oath of Unity is a force to propel that mission forward, as well as an opportunity for us to align with other bar associations to promote diversity throughout the legal profession.”
Promoting collaboration among bar associations
Justice Reyes emphasized that encouraging this dialogue and collaboration among bar association presidents was a key goal of convening them for a collective pledge.
Bar association presidents ended up having conversations and began to realize that they had similar concerns about diversity in the profession, he said.
“They started creating ideas to work together,” Justice Reyes said. “So, what we were hoping would happen actually happened.”
Illinois State Bar Association President Rory Weiler said he embraces the spirit of cooperation the Oath of Unity engenders.
“The Oath is a pledge,” Weiler said, “but also a reminder that we presidents will best serve our members, and the greater public at large when we cooperate with each other to encourage our members to similarly dedicate themselves to the enhancement and advancement of unity and diversity, and by fostering within our associations an environment where all are welcomed and included and valued for their contributions.”
The call to unify with like-minded leaders is an aspect of the Oath that Eleni Katsoulis, President of the Hellenic Bar Association of Illinois, said particularly inspires her.
Katsoulis explained that the Hellenic Bar Association’s charter states, in part, that the purposes of the organization “are to promote friendly relations among its members and the members of the Bar generally, the Courts, and the public” as well as to “cultivate respect and esteem of the public for the legal profession.”
“Unity has been the backbone of our organization, and it is our goal to continue this legacy,” she said. “Accordingly, we are excited about opportunities to work with other bar groups to this end.”
Supporting the next generation of attorneys
In addition to convening presidents for the Oath of Unity, the Diversity Scholarship Foundation runs several other initiatives.
These include a first-generation mentoring program, which pairs first-generation students with first-generation judges and lawyers; an appellate practice mentoring program, partnering with the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, the State’s Attorney’s Office, and the City of Chicago to create appellate opportunities for individuals from diverse backgrounds; a scholarship program for law students; and a cable television program, highlighting diverse members of the legal profession and the obstacles they have overcome to achieve success.
Ten years from now, Justice Reyes said he hopes diversity and inclusion will be second nature to everyone in Illinois’ legal profession and the judiciary. When making decisions, he said he hopes everyone will reflexively “make sure you have everybody included and everybody at the table.”
Moving closer to securing justice for all
As a profession largely predicated on precedent, the legal profession can often be slow to change and quick to cling to past practices. Efforts to diversify the profession therefore can yield progress that feels incremental as opposed to monumental.
Yet, while watching a stage filled with lawyers (who increasingly reflect Illinois’ diversity) take an oath promoted by Justice Reyes (the first Latino elected to the Illinois Appellate Court) and administered by Chief Justice Theis (the fourth woman to serve as the Supreme Court’s chief justice), you could feel a sense of pride and optimism.
Timothy Tomasik, President of the Chicago Bar Association, described it this way: “The Unity Oath is an important and symbolic statement solidifying every bar association’s commitment to diversify our legal community. Chief Justice Theis summed it up best during her speech accepting the 2022 Unity Award when she said ‘[w]e know we have to be intentional about our work, we are all committed to the value that all people are worthy of justice in a free and fair justice system.’”
I am proud to be part of a profession whose mandate is the pursuit of justice and optimistic that we are perhaps one step closer to securing that justice for all.
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