Racially charged fliers distributed recently in Edison—targeting Asian candidates in a school board election—were a stark reminder that even in an ethnically diverse state like New Jersey individuals can be targeted for their heritage. For some people, like lawyer Kenyatta K. Stewart, the pain associated with those kinds of attacks is never far from the surface.
Stewart, 41, is a Paterson-based partner with Hunt, Hamlin & Ridley, which bills itself as New Jersey’s largest black-owned law firm. He’ll never forget the pain he felt when he believed a judge in South Jersey used ‘code words’ that appeared to single Stewart out because of his race.
“The judge was an older man, and was skeptical about an argument I presented on behalf of my client,” said Stewart. “But instead of citing a point of law, he looked at the opposing counsel, who was white, and said to me, ‘He’s here all the time. You’re not.’ Fortunately I was able to demonstrate case law that supported my client’s position.”
As a state, New Jersey is one of the most diverse places in the nation, according to a September study by WalletHub, a personal finance site. But when it comes to diversity in the legal field, the Garden State occupies a much lower rung. In fact 65 percent of the 437 justices and judges statewide are male, and among those, whites make up about 57 percent of the roster, according to the 2017 New Jersey Supreme Court Committee On Minority Concerns. Blacks account for just under 5 percent of the bench, while Hispanic justices and judges account for 2.7 percent; and Asians and American Indians represent less than 1 percent, according to the study.
In some cases, the low representation may result from a lack of role models, according to Stewart, who represents clients in civil and criminal matters, including litigation. “I grew up in Paterson, and never saw any black lawyers,” he said. “As I got older, I just assumed that whites were better lawyers. Today, I’m thankful that my clients can point to me as a positive role model.”
Stewart also counsels young people, and tries to mentor them, encouraging them to apply for legal internships at his firm and to pursue other opportunities that can offer valuable experience and networking exposure. “You can’t wait until they’re in law school to reach them,” he said. “That’s too late. You have to put more resources into communities—we need more local lawyers, doctors, and other professionals so kids will see them as role models. After all, you can’t be a doctor if you afraid of blood.”
Some law firms are trying to be proactive about attracting and retaining women and other minorities, said Robert L. Johnson, a director in the corporate department of the Newark-based law firm Gibbons P.C., who was also appointed in September as Gibbons’ second-ever chief diversity officer. As CDO, his responsibilities include developing and supporting programs to promote ethnic, gender and other forms of diversity.
“My experiences at Gibbons have all been positive, but I still feel like I represent my race,” said Johnson, who grew up in Waco, Texas, played professional basketball in France, and joined Gibbons after he graduated from Seton Hall University School of Law in Newark. Growing up in a small town, he never really had exposure to big companies or to large law firms. “Cultural differences can matter, but you have to be proactive at work.”
That’s important because personal connections, which play a role in career opportunities at most workplaces, are particularly important at a law firm, where partners can determine what kinds of assignments an associate gets. Johnson was able to establish these kinds of relationships, but some minority associates find that difficult.
“You need a mentor, but some of my friends at other law firms weren’t as fortunate,” he said. “They couldn’t establish a personal relationship with a partner. Part of it’s because when a partner gets busy, he’ll reach out to a person he’s comfortable with, and part of it’s because when you look for a role model, you tend to look for someone who resembles yourself.”
So Johnson, who is still sometimes the only African-American in a room, has always gone the extra distance to demonstrate his commitment to success.
“I’ve always tried to reach out to people at Gibbons,” he said. “Everyone here works hard, so if you show you’re here and available to work, then people respond in a positive way.”
As CDO, he is attempting to add hue to Gibbons’ ranks. “We offer diversity training for new hires, focusing on issues like unconscious bias, and back up the training with statistics about minority hiring and retention,” Johnson said. “In addition to internal diversity programs, I speak at outside events and sit on diversity panels.”
Also, because the attrition rate is higher for women and minorities, “we try to keep them here longer, so there’s a better chance that they can make partner. As CDO I ask if they’re working on interesting assignments, and getting enough billable hours.”
Johnson is also working with law schools to develop a database of diverse candidates. While Gibbons doesn’t hire directly out of law school—“We hire laterals, or after a clerkship”—he hopes that the planned database will help students to network, and will get clerkships and other opportunities.
Meanwhile, besides his CDO activities, Johnson is still fielding legal matters as a corporate attorney, focusing on mergers and acquisitions where he represents commercial banks and others; in addition to stock and asset purchase transactions, securities regulations, corporate governance and other matters. How does he squeeze everything in? “I’m efficient,” he shrugged. “I try to attend diversity events in the early morning, or evenings after hours. Doing things like this means sacrificing a lot of personal time, but I’m an African-American and a corporate attorney. I don’t run into many others, so I’m happy to do anything I can to move the needle forward.”
Lora L. Fong is an assistant attorney general and CDO in the state Attorney General’s office in Trenton. Born in New Jersey, she’s a fourth-generation American whose dad served in the U.S. Navy during World War 2. “But for years, there were slights and stereotypes,” said Fong, a former president of the Asian Pacific American Lawyers Association of New Jersey. “I would walk into a courtroom and people thought I was a court reporter, not an attorney. At a deposition, I was told that ‘You don’t act Asian,’ whatever that means.”
Fong was a partner with Brown, Moskowitz & Kallen, and practiced at law firms like Greenbaum Rowe Smith & Davis, and Sills Cummis & Gross before moving to the Attorney General’s office as its first chief diversity officer in December 2016. Today, she said, “I’m encouraged by the attention and focus on diversity in law, and the fact that the AG created the position of CDO.”
Fong is working to design and implement initiatives to foster diversity among state workers and to spread the word about “appreciating and valuing the differences between us.” Through formal diversity training programs, she’s trying to improve recruitment among minorities, in addition to encouraging more networking.
Her activities cover a wide range of issues. “I’ve trained more than 500 state police officers on being aware of unconscious bias,” she noted. “I’ve also advocated for a work environment that supports nursing mothers.”
Diversity, and an understanding of what it means, is particularly important in the public sector, she said. “We’re constantly interacting with the public. So we need to be able to understand and relate to our constituents.”