Bar News - December 17, 2010
President's Perspective: Nurturing Diversity: the Article 2 Society
By: Marilyn Billings McNamara
New Hampshire established its first state constitution in 1783. It was, and is, a great document, full of protections for its citizens—though I am sorry to say that back in 1783, the word men was often interpreted to mean, well, men. It took a 1974 addition to Part 1, Article 2, to clarify that equality of rights under the law applies without regard to race, creed, color, sex or national origin. I remember the debate; some thought the addition was unnecessary, given the changes in attitudes towards women since 1783. Without going into detail, suffice it to say that both women and men benefit by having the promise of equal treatment in writing, lest there be some misunderstanding, either now or at a future time.
|Marilyn Billings McNamara
Yet the assurance of equal treatment for all has not always meant the assurance of equal opportunity. It took New Hampshire 70 years from the 1917 decision that allowed women to practice law to admit a total of 100 women lawyers (about 20 of whom were admitted in 1977). Since then, the numbers have significantly increased, but we will know we have made true progress toward equality of opportunity only when the appointments of well-qualified women to positions of authority and power are heralded not by their gender, but by their skill, competence and vision.
New Hampshire’s face is changing; more of our citizens come in colors other than white; some have accents, different beliefs, and diverse cultural practices. We have the chance to embrace change just as it is beginning to unfold; let us not take decades to be open and inclusive to qualified people who want to practice law in New Hampshire. The constitutional promise of equal rights means that we, as lawyers, have a responsibility to look beyond our usual circles and search for the best of the best, to nurture talent wherever it may to found, and to mentor those who will lead this state into the future regardless of race, creed, color, national origin, sex or orientation.
Diversity can be uncomfortable; living as we do in a largely homogenous culture, many of us are uncertain about what to say, or not say, to someone who is clearly different from us in the ways mentioned above. Lawyers who do the hiring for their firms report struggling with appropriate questions to ask someone who, if hired, will be the first one of his or her race, creed, color or national origin in that firm. Pretending to be blind to differences, both the interviewer and the interviewee walk across a sea of eggshells when a few well-considered questions and answers might put some issues to rest.
How do we learn what to ask? I’ve been talking to a diverse pool of law students, most from the UNH School of Law, about the challenges of employment in tough times and the notion of staying in New Hampshire after graduation. The concerns are the same for all students, no matter what their various backgrounds may be: finding and keeping a job, connecting with colleagues, creating a life outside the law, and paying student loans.
To become more comfortable with diversity, to learn how to talk to potential employees about the very real challenges of the practice, we would do well to strengthen our connections to law students, and not just so they can show us how to use our smart phones. The students I’ve met are smart, ambitious, engaging and strategic.
If we ask them what to do, they will tell us. The dialogue has started; I invite you all to play a part in welcoming the newest members of the Article 2 society.
Marilyn Billings McNamara is an attorney at Upton & Hatfield in Concord. She is the 2010-11 NH Bar Association president.