Report recommends steps to increase Delaware bench and bar diversity

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Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Collins J. Seitz, Jr. and Justice Tamika R. Montgomery- Reeves released the “Improving Diversity in the Delaware Bench and Bar Strategic Plan.” 

“The Committee has done an outstanding job with the report. Some of the recommendations are already taking place. We’re excited to study all of the recommendations and to make lasting changes to improve the diversity of the Delaware bench and bar,” said  Seitz. As the report explains, the lack of diversity can be traced to several interrelated issues, starting with how the law and the legal profession is taught in schools to bar readiness, professional retention, and the judicial nominating process“This detailed strategic plan – that as far as we know is one of the first of its kind in the nation for a court system – gives us 50 recommendations and concrete steps to consider to make the Delaware bench and bar more representative of the diversity of our great State,” said  Montgomery-Reeves. 

The National Center for State Courts and the non-profit AccessLex Institute worked on the 101- page report along with a steering committee that included representatives from each of Delaware’s state courts, Delaware legal aid groups, the Board of Bar Examiners, the Department of Justice, the Office of Defense Services, the Governor’s Office, private law firms, Widener University Delaware Law School, the University of Delaware, Delaware State University and community and technical colleges. Dozens more from across the state were involved in subcommittee working groups or participated in interviews. 

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Tangible steps

“The Strategic Plan provides tangible steps that will have a real and lasting impact,” said Delaware State Bar Association President Kathleen Miller. “Improving diversity, equity, and inclusion is not a quick fix. This is a comprehensive action plan to effectuate change with a commitment from the bench and the bar at the highest levels, which provides for both immediate and long-term approaches to achieving inclusion for everyone.” 

The National Center, which represents state courts across the country, and AccessLex, which is affiliated with bar associations and law schools across the nation, were brought in to provide subject matter expertise, data analysis, national resources, and to help facilitate the work of the committee. The report and recommendations are intended to serve as a model for other states to follow. 

“Diversity, equity, and inclusion are not simple words to espouse when they impact social constructs like race, class, and gender,” said Delaware State University President Tony Allen, whose university participated in the study. “They engulf every aspect of our public life. Nowhere is that more important than in our legal system. In that vein, I am very impressed with Delaware Supreme Court’s focus on creating a more representative legal community that can serve as a national model across the country. At Delaware State University, we are proud to be a part of the conversation and, more importantly, to work together toward tangible solutions for the many talented young people in our community.” 

Seitz said the full Supreme Court will consider the report and develop an action plan to work on the recommendations. 

The full report can be found on the Administrative Office of the Courts website.

The report noted that the pipeline of potential judges and attorneys is limited by fewer people of color  going to college while also facing barriers in financing their education.

A limited pipeline

“Accordingly, the diversity challenges facing the Delaware legal profession cannot be addressed merely by changing law school or bar admission processes and practices, although changes here may be critically important. A ‘whole of system’  approach is needed, the report stated.

Another barrier is the Delaware State Bar Exam and Admission, which has a high fail rate and a mandatory clerkship-observation  provisions. Despite the high fail rate, the test is offered only once a year. No data was available on the pass-fail rate among minorities.

The lack of diversity also affects the pipeline for judges.

“Delaware’s judiciary is more reflective of the licensed bar than the diversity of the state and its local communities.,” the report noted. 

While strides have been made from being “vastly  underrepresented,” diversity is often limited by court level and geography.

The report also pointed to a lack of support for attorneys of color entering the profession.

Other recommendations 

– The Delaware Supreme Court    partnering with public schools (especially existing vocational schools) to encourage academic and career technical education, business partnerships, mentoring, and internships to students. 

– The effort could extend to Delaware State University, Delaware Technical Community College, Widener University Delaware Law School and others.

– The Delaware Supreme Court should consider adopting a “Delaware Scholars Program” as an alternative to the bar exam and explore with state authorities a loan repayment program for law graduates who gain bar admission through the Delaware Scholars Program and agree to practice in Delaware for a specified period. 

– To improve bar exam passage rates, the Delaware Supreme Court should consider examining and then prioritizing potential reforms to the bar admission process, including collecting data on test success rates and offer the exam twice a year.

– To reduce attrition and improve advancement in the legal profession, the Delaware Supreme Court should consider taking steps that reinforce law firm partners’ engagement with mentorship programs, and  increase training to address ongoing biases that can inhibit attorneys of color and female attorneys from advancing further in the legal profession. 

–  Establish a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Coordinator (DEIC) at the Supreme Court and eventually at all court levels. 

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