This story is featured in the winter 2020 issue of St. Thomas Lawyer.

The death of George Floyd at the hands of police in May 2020 was a “loud wake-up call to recognize and confront the realities of what it means to be black in America, and what we must do more to address racial disparities,” said Summra Shariff ’07 J.D., executive director and president of Twin Cities Diversity in Practice.

“It is no longer business as usual in the legal field. Everyone must share the responsibility to address systemic racism in the legal system and anywhere it exists,” Shariff continued. “White law students and lawyers must be active and deliberate partners in this work alongside Black, Indigenous and other people of color. We must understand the true cost and roots of systemic racism. Racial inequalities exist; that is no longer a point of theoretical debate. As legal professionals, we are trained to problem solve. It’s our duty to address the immense inequities.”

Many among the Twin Cities legal community reacted with swift and certain condemnation of Minneapolis police following Floyd’s death, and then began reckoning with anti-Black racism and systemic injustices, particularly within the legal system. Two St. Thomas lawyers, Sherry Roberg-Perez ’05 J.D. and Beth Forsythe ’06 J.D., serve as leaders in large Minneapolis law firms and see a deeper sense of commitment to lasting change within the legal field in terms of diversity, inclusion and racial justice.

Building on a Foundation of Inclusiveness

Sherry Roberg-Perez ’05 J.D. is a partner at Robins Kaplan LLP and a Diversity Committee co-chair. Robins has 250 lawyers in eight offices nationwide. It was founded 80 years ago by two Jewish lawyers facing anti-Semitism at other local law firms and has always had inclusiveness at the heart of its mission. That historical commitment laid groundwork for the firm to “embrace much-needed conversation following the 2020 murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Tony McDade about anti-Black racism, racial justice, and the responsibility that each and every one of us has to make our communities more equitable,” Roberg-Perez said.

The firm has also “looked inward to ask difficult questions about why some of our own diversity and inclusion goals have remained aspirational instead of actualized. We recognize that we must work harder to ensure our organization more closely mirrors the values we hold central to both our origins and our future.” To that end, Robins started holding diversity and inclusion office hours, staffed in alternate months by executive board members and the Diversity and Inclusion team; and has appointed executive board members as liaisons to the firm’s diversity working groups, including the Racial & Ethnic Diversity Working Group, the LGBTQ Working Group, and the Women of Robins Kaplan Working Group. The firm has also created a resource group for Black firm members to build community and provide support.

Robins is also committed to promoting diversity in the broader community by “developing a racial justice pro bono initiative with a nationwide focus on alleviating the collateral consequences of criminal convictions in response to over-policing of communities of color and systemic racism in the criminal justice system. It will include high-impact work for individuals and high-impact work for system change.”

Social justice was important to Roberg-Perez when she decided to attend St. Thomas Law, and is even more pressing now: “The sense of urgency we see today may be responsive to the upheavals of 2020. We’ve seen so much that feels like it is out of our control. A global pandemic. Extreme heat and wildfires. To the extent that we ‘can’ control how members of our communities are treated, and whether our workplaces are diverse and inclusive, we have the obligation to do so.”

Disrupting the Status Quo

Beth Forsythe ’06 J.D. is a partner at Dorsey & Whitney LLP and serves on its Policy Committee (i.e., its board of directors). Dorsey has over 500 lawyers at 19 offices in the United States and abroad, with its headquarters in Minneapolis. Forsythe described the impact of Floyd’s death on her and the legal community: “The disregard for human life captured in the video of George Floyd’s death was blatant and unending. I kept shouting ‘STOP!’ at my screen, as if that might help. What will help now is to stop doing what we’ve always done, stop ignoring injustices and disparities in our workplaces and communities, stop thinking the problems are too big for us to have an impact. I think that video jolted a critical mass of people, lawyers included, out of complacency.”

Dorsey has been an AmLaw 100 leader in implementing diversity and inclusion programs like their Diversity Hours Policy that credits attorneys for up to 50 hours of qualifying diversity activities toward their billable hours requirements; for its regular classes, programs and events on a variety of diversity and inclusion topics; and for its generous parental leave and adoption policies.

Beth Forsythe ’06 J.D. (center) was one of several hundred lawyers who participated in the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers’ Silent Protest in Solidarity at the Hennepin County Government Center on June 8, 2020. Photo by Athena Hollins ’11 J.D.

Dorsey made headlines when it ended its prosecutorial pro bono program with the City of Minneapolis following Floyd’s death, citing research that prosecution of misdemeanor crimes disproportionately impacts the Black community. For 42 years, the program had placed Dorsey associates in the City Attorney’s office to gain litigation experience while simultaneously relieving the workload of the city attorney. Dorsey will now focus more of its pro bono services on external racial justice work.

The firm is also implementing long-term strategies to promote diversity and inclusion by working with an outside consultant to study exit interviews and to conduct “stay interviews” with lawyers of color and women partners to identify best practices for retention; piloting a “Just in Time Feedback” initiative that will create a platform for partners to give prompt feedback to junior associates on any matter on which they bill 10+ hours; piloting blind work allocation to junior associates in the corporate and trial groups; and formalizing diversity and inclusion resource groups (Lawyers of Color, Women Attorneys, LGBTQ+ Allies, and Staff of Color and Allyship).

Both Robins Kaplan and Dorsey are also listed among the 117 major law firms nationwide that participate in the Diversity Lab’s Mansfield Rule, which measures whether law firms have affirmatively considered at least 30% of women, lawyers of color, LGBTQ+ lawyers, and lawyers with disabilities for leadership and governance roles, equity partner promotions, formal client pitch opportunities, and senior lateral positions. The goal is to boost representation of diverse lawyers in law firm leadership by broadening the pool of candidates considered for those opportunities.

Minneapolis: the Epicenter of Social Change

Minneapolis is home to the University of St. Thomas School of Law and its mission “dedicated to integrating faith and reason in the search for truth through a focus on morality and social justice.” It is also the birthplace of St. Thomas lawyers trained to be problem solvers and advocates for justice and where many St. Thomas Law alumni work and call home. For Forsythe, who also serves as the president of the law school’s Alumni Advisory Board this year, “community and solidarity are two things I’ve thought about a lot this year. We were taught at St. Thomas to consider how the laws we studied affected our most vulnerable neighbors, and to live in service to and with our communities. Those lessons help me stay focused on the inherent dignity of each person I encounter and keep me optimistic that nearly all of us believe in and are willing to work for social justice.”

In 2016, Robins Kaplan provided funds to establish an endowed director of clinical legal education at St. Thomas Law, which is held by Professor Virgil Wiebe. Wiebe is one of the directors of the St. Thomas Interprofessional Center (IPC) for Counseling and Legal Services, where students from the schools of law, graduate professional psychology and social work provide counseling and legal services to underserved populations of the Twin Cities. The IPC serves more than 200 clients each year through its pro bono legal clinics.

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