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DMV Bar Presidents Discuss Policy and Personal Experience

May 23, 2024

By Jeremy Conrad

DMV Bar Presidents

The mandatory bars in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia made history last year when each elected a Black man as president. On May 21, D.C. Bar President Charles R. Lowery Jr., Maryland State Bar Association President Jason A. DeLoach, and Virginia State Bar President Chidi James sat down with Bloomberg Industry Group Executive Editor Lisa Helem at the Bar’s headquarters for a conversation about their personal journeys into bar leadership.

The three bar leaders also discussed the challenges and opportunities they have encountered in their respective roles, as well as the status of their bars’ commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility.

Lowery said his presidency can be characterized by efforts to “connect the dots” among the many legal organizations and stakeholders in the Washington, D.C., area.

“I wanted the Bar to be more inclusive,” Lowery said, citing meetings with leaders of voluntary bar associations and law school deans as examples of collaborative efforts during his term. “Coming from a nonprofit/government service space, I wanted other lawyers to feel like they could get involved in the Bar, that it wasn’t just Big Law. To do that involves creating new partnerships and new ideas.”

To succeed in his role, DeLoach said he had to be open-minded and agile. “I’ve pivoted many times. I have a very good executive committee. I went into meetings thinking, this is the kind of approach I’d like to take, and my executive committee would say, ‘Jason, I think we need to go in a different direction.’ I prided myself that I wasn’t so egotistical that it was my way or the highway,” DeLoach said. “I realized that, in this position, you are representing thousands, and every word you say means something. People are going to remember 100 percent of what you say.”

DeLoach leveraged this flexibility when he had to contend with a crisis during his presidency. His voice cracking with emotion, he told the audience about the murder of a Maryland judge last year by a litigant. DeLoach testified before the Maryland legislature in the aftermath of the incident.

“They gave me some remarks [that] I had marked up, but I had to take a step back and realize it wasn’t about emotions. It was about getting into the heads of these elected officials to do the right thing,” DeLoach said, opting to stick to his script. Following hearings into the matter, Maryland passed the Judge Andrew F. Wilkinson Judicial Security Act, protecting the privacy of judges by removing or prohibiting the publication of personal information on the internet or social media.

Virginia State Bar’s James faced very different challenges serving his membership. “Virginia is a large state,” James said. “That has been challenging, just traveling, trying to get out to places, places you’ve probably never heard of … I was in Big Stone Gap in Appalachia, in the mountains, last week. That has definitely been challenging.”

The travel has been necessary, in part, to address one of the Virginia legal community’s emerging concerns. “The issue [is] with the reduction of attorneys in certain areas … you guys have probably heard the term ‘legal deserts,’ and in Virginia, in a lot of areas we have lawyers who have retired and fewer young attorneys who want to go out [there] and practice … so folks are being underserved,” James said.

The Virginia State Bar created a committee to look into how it can help address the access to justice gap, including whether law school graduates are choosing not to take the Virginia bar exam. “Virginia [has not adopted] the Uniform Bar Exam, so people have a choice. Law students have a choice,” James said.

James said the problem is too complex to be solved in the few months left in his term, but he expected that his organization would continue to develop and implement solutions.

Pushing Forward on Diversity

DMV Bar PresidentsResponding to a question about whether their respective organizations have adjusted their position on diversity following the U.S. Supreme Court’s affirmative action decision in Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, all three presidents said that their bars have not scaled back efforts to create a more diverse legal community.

“I don’t think that we’ve changed our approach. I think we’ve leaned in,” Lowery said. “We’ve taken our working group and turned it into a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility Task Force,” which is coming out with a report soon.

“This issue is really important. We’re not shying away from it, and we’re looking to see how the D.C. Bar can be a leader in that space and push forward,” Lowery said.

The Maryland State Bar is not slowing down either, said DeLoach. “It’s a very important issue, and the bar association has taken the issue seriously before I became president. I think that all of these companies and law firms that are abandoning their diversity, equity, and inclusion programs for legal reasons … I think that’s a cop-out,” he said.

“This issue is very important because your law firm, your corporation, they’re better when you have a diverse workforce. So, you may not want to call it diversity, equity, and inclusion, but you need to find a way to get a diverse workforce,” he added.

James applauded his colleagues’ positions. He said that the Virginia State Bar debated a decade ago whether it should hold a diversity conference. “There was a lot of consternation about whether it would pass. So then, it came time for the debate before the VSB Council, and it passed without significant pushback. Then, shortly after that, there was a push to see whether the diversity conference would be an official conference and … receive funding from the state bar. We thought that would be a problem too, and, once again, it wasn’t,” James said.

“So, the things that the Virginia Bar does in the diversity space, we haven’t changed. In fact, I think it’s gotten a little bit better. In our rules, the Supreme Court of Virginia says that one of the missions of the VSB Council is to encourage and promote diversity in the profession and the judiciary. That has not been an issue, so far,” he added.

Although the DMV Bar Presidents’ Panel was ostensibly a one-off event, there were intimations that it might be repeated. “I was thinking, why don’t we keep doing this?” Lowery said. “Next year, the Maryland, Virginia, and D.C. Bar presidents should get together. The connection that we just started here could continue.”

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