Representing and Promoting Diversity in Our Communities
By Heath P. Straka, WAJ President, Axley Brynelson, LLP
With the election of Rebecca Dallet to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, six of the seven Justices will be women. In the 115th United States Congress, there is a record number of women – 23 Senators and 83 Representatives. WAJ has been committed to ensuring that our female members flourish, and under the guidance of Christine Bremer Muggli and Ann Jacobs, WAJ formed the Women’s Caucus in 2009. Since that time, our female members have stepped into leadership of the Women’s Caucus, and the chair now sits on the WAJ Executive Committee.
At the beginning of my term as President of WAJ, the foundation has been set to further diversify our membership so that it more closely aligns with the reality of our population, not only as to gender, but also as it relates to race and politics. To that end, WAJ is forging relationships with the Wisconsin Hispanic Law Association and the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Diversity Clerkship Program; as well as forming a Republican Caucus.
As trial lawyers, we are often on the front lines in promoting diversity. Our commitment to representing diverse individuals and interests is shown in ways that are both big and small. One can point to many landmark cases and court decisions which have helped protect and secure the rights of traditionally disfavored or overlooked constituencies. At the root of each of these cases is a person or a group who was harmed and a lawyer willing to take their case.
While it is true that most of us do not spend our days teeing up cases destined to land on the Supreme Court’s doorstep, the small things we do help give voice to our clients and promote diversity. The same is true for WAJ. We strive to give our clients the best representation possible. For some, that means taking on different types of cases. For every one of us, that means we seek to present cases in a way that captures the unique interests and harm done to our clients.
Given the highly politicized environment that shapes a lot of the world today, in Wisconsin and nationally, it is probably wise that we don’t always lead by touting the most controversial stances we may take to secure justice for our clients. But our actions speak louder than words – and we should embrace and be proud of what we do.
I started this column not intending to make a broader point about how diversity links our practices, and recent developments in Wisconsin, but I quickly realized that the way we represent our clients exemplifies the ideals that I wanted to highlight.
Routine tasks we do representing our clients helps foster a just and diverse legal system. This is true in many ways. For cases that go to trial, we seek to make sure our clients’ claims are heard by juries that are reflective of both our clients’ interests and the communities in which they live. The same is true of the work necessary to get a difficult case to settle. Indeed, writing a good brief, exposing a biased expert, or taking the time to pick a fair and impartial jury are actions that help ensure our legal system listens to all voices.
WAJ has long sought to be the bridge that represents our interests in the Capitol. We must build on the gains we have made. Our membership represents people from every corner of the state and who are from all walks of life. We should strive to make our ranks as diverse and as well represented as our clients.
Lastly, we must not forget to embrace political diversity. I write this column shortly after Judge Rebecca Dallet’s historic victory in the Spring elections. When she joins the court in August, the Wisconsin Supreme Court will feature six of seven seats filled by female justices. We should cheer this historic development and examine the ways in which we can move our profession towards greater diversity and inclusion as well.
As November begins to be in view, we must also double down on our efforts to form a bi-partisan, pro-civil justice majority in the legislature. Today, women make up 25 percent of the State legislature, 32 of 127 lawmakers. This number may increase in the fall as candidates find themselves motivated to run in a competitive environment. Through the WAJ and the Justice Fund, we will have another opportunity to give voice to our clients, stand up for our practices, and to help ensure that we promote, and that our government protects, diversity in our communities – just like we do in our practices every day. I hope you’ll join our efforts.