President's Address

By Gregory H. Williams

(Editor?s note: The following is President Williams?s speech before the AALS House of Representatives at the Annual Meeting in January.)

Members of the House of Representatives, colleagues and friends: it is an honor and privilege to stand before you today. When I read the names of the true giants of legal education who have proceeded me to this podium, I am truly humbled. As a young boy growing up in the midst of poverty and division in my home state of Indiana, I never thought my path in life would bring me to this place. However, as Justice Holmes said, the life of the law has not been logic but experience, and I hope and trust that my experience will serve me well this year as your president.

Nonetheless, be assured that even if experience fails to keep me on a true course, there is an outstanding Executive Committee which will support my strengths and limit my shortcomings. In fact, one of the highlights of my time in legal education has been to serve on the Executive Committee and work with Carl Monk and the many other law faculty and staff across the nation who have given much of their time and energy to the Association.

No one reaches this point without the help and assistance of many people. I have a long list of family and friends who have been incredibly supportive of me over the years, and I thank them. I especially remember my father who, were he living, would be 85 years old today. I would also like to thank some of our former presidents who have offered me many words of encouragement and support: Frank Strong, David Vernon, Susan Prager, Rennard Strickland, Judith Wegner, John Sexton and Deborah Rhode. Their names will always be associated with the very best in legal education.

I am particularly honored to follow Deborah Rhode as president. Her focus on the professional responsibility of law schools is one that I fully support and I hope the AALS, and each law school, will continue to create a Culture of Commitment to Pro Bono activities. Deborah has brought us closer to that goal, and I am pleased that the new AALS Section on Pro Bono Programs will continue her work.

Over the past few months I have thought a great deal about the many challenges that face us and how I might use my short time as your president to help shape our responses to a few of those challenges.

I have two goals for my year as your leader: (1) to renew our commitment to diversity, and (2) to focus on our obligation to train leaders.

DIVERSITY

I come to you as the first African-American male president of the AALS. For the first ninety-two years of the AALS, no person of color stood here as your leader. Since 1992, three persons of color have become president, and I will be the fourth. In the professoriate, persons of color have increased from approximately 200 in 1977 when I began law school teaching to more than 700 today. During that same time, the number of minority students in law schools has increased from 9,500 to 25,000. All this is to say that we are making progress. We should feel positive about the increased representation of persons of color on our faculties and in our student bodies. But today there is a great danger facing us. Many in the country, some in the legal profession and even a few in the academy, are calling for a halt to our diversity efforts. Some claim that we have gone too far, that we are engaging in reverse discrimination, and that we have done enough. I do not believe we have gone too far. I do not believe we are engaging in reverse discrimination, and I do not believe we have done enough.

Our challenge today is to maintain our commitment to diversity. We do not have the luxury of ignoring or wringing our hands over the Hopwood opinion in the 5th Circuit, Proposition 209 in California, the recent referendum against affirmative action in the State of Washington, or the pernicious Solomon Amendment.

I believe that unless we resist efforts to turn back the clock and come up with viable programs to promote diversity, our future will be very different from our recent past. I know there are many here who are as concerned as I am about the evisceration of the diversity gains we have made. My worry is whether we have the resolve to confront this challenge.

The New York Times has coined what one might call a ?politically correct? term for avoiding the challenges of the day. They call it ?compassion fatigue.? To me, that term describes a person who will undertake a task as long as it comports with a personal moral code, is not too difficult, and does not take too much of one?s time and psychic energy. When I first heard the lament of ?compassion fatigue,? my mind wandered back to Thurgood Marshall and former Howard University law dean Charles Hamilton Houston and their work to break down the barriers of racial discrimination in this nation. Marshall and Houston?s efforts supported many cases in disparate jurisdictions and did it with just a few lawyers spread across the United States. Many of those lawyers were clearly fatigued. In fact, that fatigue may have resulted in Dean Houston?s death at the early age of 54.

Justice Marshall, Dean Houston and their colleagues realized something which we must remember today. When one seeks to open the doors of opportunity in this country, many see such efforts as an attack on privilege and entitlement. We have as an association, especially in the last twenty years, helped remove roadblocks to equal opportunity in the legal academy and the profession. Now, strident opposition has emerged despite national polls that show Americans support diversity in higher education. It will no longer be as easy to stay the course.

When I consider the possibility that doors to the law schools and the profession may be closing to persons of color, my thoughts return to the rigidly segregated society I experienced in my youth during the 1950?s and 1960?s. Doors were closed and there was little opportunity for all of our citizens. In my hometown of 70, 000 people, there were approximately thirty lawyers. None of those lawyers was black, and due to the poverty of the community, there were few opportunities for blacks to hire lawyers to address our legal grievances. The failure to have minority lawyers or lawyers committed to removing barriers of discrimination meant that, in my hometown, swimming pools, movies, and restaurants were de facto segregated until the late 1950?s. Blacks were not hired to teach in the public schools with any regularity until the mid-sixties. A legal services office did not exist until the 1970?s. You cannot imagine my shock and surprise when I arrived at law school in the late 1960?s and learned that the exclusion of blacks from the restaurant where my black grandmother worked in the basement kitchen had long been against the law.

Three years ago, I read that one of the proponents of Proposition 209 in California was a man about my age and from my home state of Indiana. When asked what he was trying to achieve with its passage, he said he was trying to recreate the place of his youth—Indiana in the 1950?s, where everyone was treated the same. Well, I was in Indiana in the 1950?s and it is not a place to which I seek to return. There was no equality of opportunity and everyone was not treated the same.

With the memory of those times etched firmly in my consciousness, I believe we need a plan of action. We need an association strategy to promote diversity. Few of us revel in the thought of developing strategic plans. However, I will ask the Executive Committee to develop a comprehensive strategic plan for addressing diversity issues that will include immediate, short-term, and long-term goals. I will urge them to consider ways we can assist member schools currently facing attacks on their diversity efforts for race, gender, and sexual orientation. I will ask them to work with me to develop alternative methods to provide access for persons of color to law school so we do not lose a generation of prospective law students. Finally, I will call on them and all of you to think about how we can develop strategies to reach elementary and middle school students and encourage the next generation to think about professional careers at the very beginning of their school years.

Of course we cannot assume that all the challenges to diversity are external. While the number of persons of color in law teaching has increased in the last twenty-five years, all doors have not been opened. Impediments to minorities and women becoming full partners in the academy still exist. While the percentage of women in law schools as students has soared to 43% in the last twenty years, women comprise only 28% of the academy.

LEADERSHIP

One of the barriers to full partnership is at the leadership level. Excluding schools of historically black or Puerto Rican student bodies, you will find only nine minority deans of AALS schools. Women have fared better—but not much. There are twenty women deans in the United States. These small numbers raise some very hard questions we have to ask ourselves about the lack of women and minorities leading American law schools.

Is there a glass ceiling in the law school world? Have we assumed that women who may have interrupted their teaching careers for child care reasons do not have the commitment to lead their schools? It is sad for me to report that I have heard that some faculty have raised questions about whether minority and women dean candidates can raise or manage money because of their race or gender. When law firm partners refused to hire minority associates, they told us, ?they weren?t sure how clients would respond to a person of color.? When we fail to hire minority law school deans, do we embrace this same faulty logic that we once challenged?

Let me end my thoughts on diversity in the law schools on a positive note. When one looks at universities, it is abundantly clear that the law schools have been leaders in enhancing diversity. As one travels from campus to campus across this nation, the law schools are invariably leaders in proportional, and often the actual, numbers of faculty and students of color within the universities of which they are part.

Our leadership role in promoting campus diversity reminds me of the many types of leadership that lawyers offer in their communities. As Harold Lasswell and Myres McDougal said in their path-breaking article on Legal Education in 1943, ?[L]awyers . . . are the one indispensable advisor of every responsible policy maker of our society.?

Graduates of our law schools have leadership roles in every branch of government. However, one does not have to be elected to high public office to be a leader. Lawyers are leaders when they serve on corporate boards and in civic organizations. They are leaders when they provide pro bono legal services to the underprivileged. They are leaders when they set an example of responsibility to their clients, to their communities, and to their families.

In virtually every law school class, we train students to analyze and critique the rationale of cases and the doctrine underlying court decisions. We parse language and we criticize faulty logic. We seek to determine whether or not students recognize the underlying public policy implications of the issues before them. But we rarely ask ourselves whether we could be even more effective in preparing our graduates for the role of the lawyer as leader or the lawyer as a problem solver, as the Attorney General said today. Clear and conscious thinking about leadership training is a missing piece of today?s legal education.

As I have thought about leadership training and looked at its development around the country, I have been impressed by what is occurring at a few law schools and in a number of professional programs. We have made tremendous strides in training lawyers as problem solvers. The field of alternative dispute resolution causes students to directly confront their role as problem solvers and places leadership responsibility directly in the hands of our students. We need to encourage more of this kind of training and experience.

We also must urge students to reflect on their own goals and objectives. As my colleague Pam Gann of Duke has said, ?Leadership begins with self-understanding.? We have largely been content with students? mastery of theory, concepts, and application of legal principles. We have rarely asked students to look internally and assess their own skills, their ability to change, and their individual capacity for uncertainty.

To achieve my second goal I want to have a dialogue on ?leadership.? I want us to talk about what we are doing in the law schools to train our students as leaders and problem solvers, and how we can expand students? awareness of what they bring to the practice of law, and what they might reasonably expect from it.

Many of us who entered law school in the late 1960?s and early 1970?s did so with an acute interest in making a difference in the world. Now maybe it is time for us to reflect on that motivation once again.

When I was eighteen years old, I sat in a white lawyer?s office where my dad worked as a janitor from time to time. My dad and the lawyer were trying to figure out a way that I would be able to go to college since I had no money. The lawyer suggested an appointment to a military academy—but being the son of an unemployed black janitor, I had no political connections.

Yet that afternoon the lawyer picked up the phone and began to dial the Indiana congressman in Washington, D.C. As he made that call, I sat there in a state of shock. Because of the razor sharp racial division and the experiences I had in that divided society, I had come to believe that, to most people in the community of my youth, my life was not worth a long distance telephone call.

It was at that moment that I knew I really wanted to be a lawyer.

One day I wanted to be able to make the same call for a kid who had absolutely nothing but dreams. I wanted to be able to show another human being that their life was of value and merit.

That is what sent me to law school and what has motivated and energized my career. I believe many of our young graduates have the same desire to be of service and to make a difference as we did. Our challenge is to help them fulfill that dream.

Recently, I had the opportunity to hear Jonathan Kozol, the noted author of Savage Inequalities and Death at an Early Age. He reminisced about how over the years many of our generation have affirmed their commitment to civil rights by saying they ?stood on the Bridge at Selma, Alabama, thirty some years ago? at the height of the Civil Rights movement. He added that so many of us continue to be rightly proud of the hard work done to secure the civil rights victories of the 1960?s. His final question, however, and one I echo, is:

?What bridge do you stand on today??


* This article appeared in the February 1999 AALS Newsletter

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