Inaugural NCAJ Diversity & Inclusion Conference Inspires Candid Conversation About Bias

by Amber Nimocks, NCAJ Marketing and Communications Manager

CARY – Judges and attorneys discussed pervasive gender bias and the possibility of a new CLE requirement that would address matters of inequity – among many other topics – at the inaugural North Carolina Advocates for Justice Diversity & Inclusion Conference Sept. 20 in Cary.

The centerpiece of the conference was a judicial panel featuring N.C. Supreme Court Justice Anita S. Earls, N.C. Court of Appeals Chief Judge Linda M. McGee and Judge Ashleigh Parker Dunston of the 10th Judicial District.

Earls told the crowd of about 50 attorneys that she is concerned that the gender bias she encountered when she began practicing law in 1988 persists. She recalled that she would often find herself in a rural N.C. county trying to persuade others in the courtroom that she was a practicing attorney and not the court reporter or a legal assistant.

“I thought that since that was over 30 years ago, that it doesn’t happen anymore,” she said. “But I have recently heard stories from younger female attorneys who have had to pull out their bar cards to convince either a sheriff’s deputy or a judge that they really are an attorney.”

Several audience members recounted similar instances, and one suggested that the N.C. State Bar adopt a requirement for a CLE that addresses such issues.

NCAJ President-elect David Henson, NCAJ Executive Director Kim Crouch, NCAJ President Vernon Sumwalt, Judge Ashleigh Parker Dunston, State Bar Executive Director Alice Neece Mine, N.C. Supreme Court Associate Justice Anita Earls, N.C. Court of Appeals Chief Judge Linda McGee, State Bar Assistant Executive Director Peter Bolac and NCAJ Diversity Officer Valerie Johnson gathered after the panel.

Dunston agreed, and pointed to Maine, which requires one annual CLE credit hour that is “primarily concerned with the recognition and avoidance of harassment and discriminatory communication and conduct.”

McGee said she had thought adding a program like the diversity and inclusion conference would be helpful.

“We’re all learning more technology as a result of being required to do it,” she said, referring to the N.C. State Bar technology CLE requirement that became effective this year. “I see no reason why we couldn’t be required to be focusing on the fact that racism and sexism still occur in the courtroom far too often.”

McGee responded to an attendee’s comment that a new CLE will not necessarily change hearts and minds by recommending that leaders in the profession call out instances of bias when they witness them.

“There is no reason in this day and time that we shouldn’t be bold,” she said. “If we sense it and believe that it has occurred, we should take just a moment to address it right then because unfortunately, there are still a number of people that simply don’t see it. It’s a little difficult to think that’s true, but they don’t seem to.”

Earls said that when a lawyer decides to speak up about an instance of microaggression, it is actually giving that person a gift.

“You are saying that you are invested in them, that you are invested in them being better citizens of our community,” she said. “They may decide not to take advantage of the gift that you’re giving them. And you have to let that go if they don’t.”

The conference grew from the work of the NCAJ’s Diversity & Inclusion Task Force, now a committee, which appointed Greensboro attorney Karonnie R. Truzy as NCAJ’s first diversity officer in 2017. Truzy said the event was part of the committee’s ongoing commitment to bring awareness to the NCAJ’s need for diversity in programming and participation.

“The first thing we really had to get past was getting people to understand that there’s a need for this,” he said. “Now, we have not only an awareness but an intentional effort to make the organization more diverse and more inclusive.”

In addition to the panel, the conference included presentations from nationally renowned experts Lisa Coleman, Chief Diversity Officer for New York University, and Sybil Dunlop, of Green Espel PLLP in Minneapolis, who spoke on implicit bias in the legal profession and ways to confront it.

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