Diversity and inclusion were the focus of several spring orientation events held Jan. 18 and 19 that kicked off the new semester for first-year law students. Through interactive and practice-specific panel discussions and presentations, students were able to learn more about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in law firm settings and in-house legal departments, as well as explore careers in social justice and public interest that engage with some of these topics.
This year’s keynote address was delivered by attorney M. Quentin Williams, founder and chief executive officer of Dedication to Community.
In his introductory remarks for Williams, Dean Matthew Diller touched on the importance of diversity in the field of law. “A key aspect of being a lawyer in today’s world is working effectively across divides of race, gender, faith, and cultural difference,” said Diller. “Research has demonstrated time and again that diverse teams are more effective than homogeneous ones because they consider a broader range of information and perspectives and anticipate a broader range of possibilities.”
However, Diller noted, law remains a stubbornly homogenous profession, with only five percent of lawyers identifying as Black, five percent as Hispanic, and two percent as Asian, according to a 2020 American Bar Association report.
Keynote Address Looks at Relationship Building
Starting off this year’s first ever two-day orientation, Williams spoke about how his personal life experiences shaped his career. The child of a Jewish mother and a Caribbean father, Williams grew up in New York City and Yonkers before attending Boston College while on a football scholarship. He later graduated from St. John’s University School of Law and went on to work as an FBI agent and federal prosecutor before taking on positions with the NBA and NFL.
However, Williams’ path to success was not without roadblocks. He described a night in 1994 when he was placed under arrest in Rhode Island after being mistaken for another Black man who was wanted in the area. Eventually, after identifying himself as an FBI agent, Williams was allowed to go free—but the incident left an impact on him, he said. He was left without an apology or an explanation, something that would have taken little time for the officer but would have mattered deeply to him. “Twenty seconds would have changed my narrative of what happened on that evening for the last 28 years,” he said.
Williams went on to found Dedication to Community, a non-profit organization that tries to improve relationships between law enforcement and the public. “Relationships are at the heart of our humanness,” said Williams. “Relationships in my life determined my destiny.”
The Intersection Between DEI and Public Service
One of the elective orientation panels offered to 1Ls on January 19 in this year’s “Law in Practice DEI Series” explored how students can use their unique backgrounds and knowledge to pursue careers in public interest law. Assistant Dean for Public Interest and Social Initiatives Leah Horowitz moderated a session titled “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Public Interest and Social Justice Careers,” in which panelists provided insight into public interest law and some of the challenges they have faced in their careers.
In response to a student question on how to pursue public interest work while repaying educational debt, Monique Milner, an associate attorney at The Cochran Firm, noted that the U.S. Department of Education’s Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program allows eligible borrowers to forgive their direct loans after working full-time for 10 years in public service positions.
Afaf Nasher, executive director at the Council on American Islamic Relations, noted that there are many ways to give back to the community, even for graduates working in the private sector. “Whether it’s pro bono hours through the firm, joining organizations in a volunteer capacity, or showing up when there are hearings at City Council or somewhere else, there’s always a path to carve for yourself if you really are committed,” she said.
Celina Cabán Gandhi, a staff attorney with Manhattan Legal Services, informed students that the entire board of The Sonia & Celina Sotomayor Judicial Internship Program—which Cabán Gandhi founded while she was a law student at CUNY School of Law—are volunteers who have full-time jobs in the private sector or other areas. “I think there’s a lot of good you could do, even after hours,” Cabán Gandhi said.
Bringing Awareness to Antisemitism
Another elective presentation that was new to this year’s line-up of orientation programming— titled “Understanding Antisemitism for Law School Settings” and moderated by Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Kamille Dean—focused on how legal education and the practice of law may become more inclusive.
Dr. Laura Shaw Frank, a lawyer and director at the American Jewish Committee (AJC), provided students with an overview of the history of antisemitism and touched upon recent news events involving antisemitic attacks.
She shared the findings of a 2021 AJC report that determined, among other startling statistics, that “39 percent of American Jews changed their behavior at least once out of fear of antisemitism in the last 12 months” and that 41 percent of Americans had witnessed an antisemitic incident during the same time period.
“Being an ally means being educated about antisemitism and actively speaking out against it, ” said Shaw Frank. “But [it also]means understanding the particular needs, backgrounds, and experiences Jews bring to the table and professional spaces and being sensitive to that.“
She suggested ways that workplaces and schools can foster respectful interactions with Jewish employees and colleagues, such as understanding and being respectful of religious holidays, providing Kosher meals during events, and refraining from making comments about religious clothing.
Other elective DEI sessions offered during this year’s orientation included panels such as “The First Generation Experience in the Practice of Law,” “The Advancement of Gender Diversity in the Legal Profession,” and “Navigating the Legal Profession through a BIPOC Lens.”