Last week’s leadership appointments in the Elmiron multidistrict litigation was a proud moment in civil justice, as it is possibly one of the most diverse plaintiffs’ steering committees ever established. It’s a far cry from what MDL leadership looked like even just ten years ago, and not without a lot of tireless effort: attorneys spearheading movements to level the playing field, organizations like Women En Mass elevating female attorneys, and people like the late Ruth Bader-Ginsburg and Kamala Harris who have spent their careers breaking the glass ceiling.
With all these thought leaders and hard-working lawyers pushing for the same goal, one would assume that equality in law must be improving more rapidly than ever. Unfortunately, there is still a lot to be done. The National Association for Law Placement reported in 2019 that equity partners are still disproportionately white men in multi-tier law firms. And it’s REALLY disproportionate: less than 20 percent of equity partners are women, and only about six percent of equity partners are racial and ethnic minorities. The fact of the matter is though, until there is equality within employment opportunities, promotions, and pay in law, the civil justice system simply isn’t doing its best.
The push for diversity is gaining momentum. In the recent Elmiron MDL, U.S. District Judge Brian Martinotti specifically called for diversity in gender, ethnicity, geography, and experience among the plaintiffs’ leadership, and he got what he asked for. Fifteen women of varying ethnic backgrounds were chosen by the attorneys. In his order, Judge Martinotti noted that the proposed team members “present an array of highly skilled counsel with diverse backgrounds.” And that’s what we should expect across the board – in job opportunities for those who have just passed the bar, to promotions to higher tier firm positions, to MDL leadership, judge roles, and so on.
Of course, the Elmiron litigation isn’t the first time there has been better diversity in MDL leadership. In the Zantac litigation, U.S. District Judge Robin L. Rosenberg appointed 26 attorneys to leadership positions, many of whom are minority attorneys, and nearly half are women. Judge Rosenberg, describing her selection process, said she drew from smaller and newer firms when making her appointments, noting that each one brings unique and different capacities to the litigation. She also sought to appoint “… a diverse leadership team that is representative of the inevitable diversity of the Plaintiffs in this case, and a team that affords younger and slightly less experienced attorneys an opportunity to participate in a leadership role in an MDL. The Court sought to create a team that would collectively bring to bear both wisdom and judgment, and also new approaches and ideas.”
And last July, U.S. District Judge James Donato rejected a motion to appoint proposed class counsel in the class action against the stock trading app Robinhood, because the initial recommendations were all men. Judge Donato noted that leadership roles should be within reach of newer, less experienced lawyers “… and the attorneys running this litigation should reflect the diversity of the proposed national class.”
We’re optimistic that judges will keep beating the drum for diversity until it’s no longer a request they must explicitly make. And for those who are for the idea of equality in law – and why would you not be – I encourage you to support your local minority trial lawyer groups and/or national groups like Women En Mass and the American Association for Justice’s Women Trial Lawyers Caucus and Minority Caucus, which act as a platform for underrepresented attorneys to help one another rise.
A West Point graduate where he served as captain and military aviator, John Bair continues his commitment to our country through his efforts within the settlement planning industry. He has represented families of victims lost in the Flight 3407 crash, offered pro bono services to the families of 9/11 victims and drafted the first consumer protection bill for plaintiffs (H.R. 3699).