Having served for 10 years on the Council for the Estate and Trust Law Section of the Maryland State Bar Association, I became Chair at the end of June. It is both an honor and a privilege to serve, and it is not lost on me that my term takes place during a worldwide health crisis that has disrupted how we work, and at a time of public and private reckoning with what a history of unjust choices has wrought in our communities.
As to the latter, my goal is to focus this year on concerted efforts to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion in the Section and on the Council. Our first step, unanimously adopted at our June meeting, was to expand by 10 the number of seats on the Council over the next four years. This step, coupled with the continued expansion of the Council’s committee structure to bring broader participation in its work, will help to change the culture of permanent tenure that has created a barrier to inclusion. Further expansion of our committee structure will provide both an on-ramp to Council, in which members may experience committee work before joining the Council, and an off-ramp for long-term Council members to continue providing service and institutional memory to the Section while stepping aside to make room for new voices.
Having a diverse Section Council will help to combat racial disparity in the Section and in our profession. An open letter, published in Medium on June 19 (https://medium.com/@aasu/a-letter-to-corporate-leadersbd931d5326ab), from the African American Student Union at Harvard Business School to the nation’s corporate leaders, pointed out that “Black professionals hold just 3.2 percent of all executive or senior leadership roles, less than 1 percent of all Fortune 500 CEO positions, and receive 1 percent of all venture capital investment.” (citing https://www.talentinnovation.org/_private/assets/BeingBlack_PressRelease.pdf) The leadership ranks in the estates and trusts Bar bear these same indicia of a long history of systemic inequality. Through the efforts of leadership, the Section Council can work to repair these wrongs.
Recognizing that we have to acknowledge race and the role systemic racism has played in each of our histories in order to change the future, made me reflect on some of my own personal history:
I claim Chicago as my hometown, but actually I grew up within the four whitewashed walls of every John Hughes movie—in a northwest suburb of Chicago—one whose particular claims to fame include the Arlington Racetrack and a 1977 Supreme Court case (Village of Arlington Heights vs. Metropolitan Housing Development Corporation, 429 U.S. 252 (1977)) that upheld racist zoning rules. A deliberate outcome of those racist zoning rules and redlining was that my elementary and middle schools were almost entirely white, and my high school of 1,600 had only one Black student. It was not until law school, in Virginia, that I ever had a Black teacher. Chicago continues to be one of the most segregated metropolitan areas of this country, and although I grew up there and think of it as “home,” the only times I was further south than Soldier Field were to visit the Museum of Science and Industry. We grew up internalizing messages that the rest of the city was out of bounds, and we did not question it.
My father was a career public defender in Cook County, handling death penalty cases. He was on the news a lot when I was young, because he accused the Chicago police of torturing a confession out of one of his clients. I was young, but I remember answering the phone when Dad’s client called our house to speak to him. He spoke kindly to me, told me to stay in school, and said that his daughter and I should get together and be friends, because we were the same age. At just 10 or 11 years old, my first thought in response was, “but that can’t happen; she lives on the South side.” I’m told she became a lawyer, too, but I’ve never spoken to her.
I look back now at far too many missed opportunities to effect change in the spaces in which I held any influence. Looking forward to this year as Chair of the Section Council, I am optimistic that we can effect meaningful change in our own sphere of influence, including:
- Prioritizing the efforts of the Section’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee, inviting and welcoming its input into what more the Council or the Section can do (e.g., reviewing our bylaws through a diversity & inclusion lens, and suggesting revisions to them), and supporting and carrying out its recommendations.
- Recruiting diverse authors to write articles for the Section newsletter, not only about estates and trusts topics, but also specifically about diversity and inclusion and elimination of bias in the legal profession, in the estates and trusts practice area, and in the Section.
- Devoting the kick-off program of the Section’s Study Group this October to a diversity-focused program.
- Recruiting diverse presenters for Section continuing education programs, and featuring elimination of bias as a program topic, particularly programs that can reach a broad audience.
- Including more expansive topics for Section-sponsored articles and programs, beyond the traditional focus on issues affecting the 1%, to address estates and trusts topics affecting underserved communities.
The Study Group, under the leadership of P&F associate Micah Snitzer, is already going beyond just the fall kick-off program; this year’s agenda includes additional programs on anti-racist topics, such as ways in which the tax laws perpetuate racial inequality.
Through these efforts, the Section will gain a vibrant energy from new ideas and perspectives, a Council in a position to respond better to the changing needs of its members, and a Section that expands its membership rather than watches members slip away.
Pasternak & Fidis has long valued our diversity as one of our strengths. We are committed to inclusivity and equality—Managing Partner Stephanie Perry and I both serve on the Diversity, Equity & Inclusivity Committee of ACTEC (the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel)—and we know we have room for improvement, too. We expect it to take hard work, be uncomfortable, and invite missteps along the way, and we commit to holding space for one another, engaging in difficult conversations, and encouraging each other to learn and grow and become more socially conscious. We are proud of the work we are doing to effect meaningful change in the spaces we are in.