It wasn't so long ago that as a black attorney Harry S. Johnson would have been shunned by the white inner circle of Maryland lawyers.
Now attorneys from all backgrounds have chosen the partner with Whiteford, Taylor and Preston to represent their interests as head of the state's largest organization representing lawyers.
Johnson was sworn in as the first African-American president of the Maryland State Bar Association yesterday, a milestone for the 20,800-member organization that until 1958 didn't allow minorities in its ranks.
In a humble and emotional speech delivered before several hundred of his colleagues at the group's annual meeting in Ocean City, and often interrupted by his own tears, Johnson lauded the historic significance of his election while expressing sadness at the many deserving black attorneys who came before him who hadn't been elected to the post.
"Many have sacrificed so much that I might stand here today," he said. "Today, I acknowledge and salute those valiant warriors, who fought for the rights of their clients and their own dignity, while also fighting the formidable barriers imposed by society and the legal system itself."
He paid tribute to attorneys like former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who was denied admission to the University of Maryland School of Law and helped found a separate group for black attorneys when the state bar association shut them out.
Johnson's family filled the front row, and he acknowledged his wife, attorney Janet Thomas Johnson, as the chief justice of his household. His parents, Sarah Johnson and Harry D. Johnson, received a standing ovation as the new president gave them thanks.
"It's good to have them here to see their oldest son address you as your president," Johnson said.
Johnson is not alone in his ground-breaking achievement. He joins an unprecedented number of black attorneys who have been elected within the last year to head bar associations, including the American Bar Association, which represents 200,000 members across the country.
Former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer will be sworn in as the first African-American president of the ABA at its annual meeting in August. That same day, the organization is poised to elect Robert J. Grey, an African-American attorney from Richmond, Va., as the organization's president-elect.
Elsewhere, state bar associations in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Washington, Alabama, New Jersey and Louisiana also have chosen African-Americans to lead their organizations for the first time.
"There actually seems to be a wave of this," said Brian Zabcik, editor of the Minority Law Journal. "What's significant and important about this is that minority attorneys have begun to establish themselves in mainstream organizations. It's important that these organizations reflect the country as a whole."
"It tangibly shows that we believe in diversity and inclusiveness," said Robert M. Bell, chief judge of the Court of Appeals of Maryland.
Yet there are still many areas where minorities lag, leaders of the profession note.
Lack of diversity
"The idea that you have African-Americans that have ascended to positions of leadership within the American Bar Association and other associations is obviously symbolic," said Malcolm S. Robinson, president of the National Bar Association, which represents 20,000 attorneys, most of whom are African-American. "The question is whether there is substantive diversity. I don't think there is substantive diversity in the field at this time."
While minorities make up about 25 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 10 percent of the nation's 1 million lawyers, according to a report released in 2000 by the ABA's Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession.
In 1998, African-Americans and Hispanics made up 7 percent of lawyers as compared to 14.3 percent of accountants, 9.7 percent of physicians and 9.4 percent of college and university teachers, that study said.
A survey of more than 200 of the country's largest law firms, conducted by the Minority Law Journal this year, found that while minorities at the firms made up about 14 percent of associates, only 4 percent had made partner.
"When we consider where we are with so many strides we've taken, it's still very dismal," Archer, who will head the ABA, said in a telephone interview last week.
"I believe progress will have been made when you start seeing more law clerks of color, more tenured track professors who are of color in law schools, more deans of color at institutions other than historically black colleges, when we look around the halls of law firms and see the same racial make-up as the population, and when we stop having to celebrate the first of this and the first of that," Archer said.
A backlash against affirmative-action programs has resulted in large drops in black enrollment at some of the country's top law schools.