ABA’s First Hispanic President on Changing Demographics – by Deborah Levine

Stephen Zack is determined that the American Bar Association (ABA) does not give in to ‘diversity fatigue.’ Zack is the first Hispanic president of the American Bar Association in its 150 years. Not surprisingly, Zack has an ongoing passion for both the law and for the issue of diversity. Recent census numbers underscores Zack’s insistence that the U.S. legal profession to become more diverse. One in six Americans is now of Hispanic heritage; the Asian-American population has more than doubled in the last 10 years. But the increasingly multiracial American population is not yet accurately reflected in the U.S. legal system even though lawyers and judges should represent the community they serve. The ABA formed the first-ever Commission on Hispanic Legal Rights and Responsibilities to address the disparity.

Zack’s professional career reads like a case study in trailblazing. In 1988, he served as the youngest president of The Florida Bar as well as the first Hispanic president. His resume if full of powerful and influential positions including former chairman of ABA’s House of Delegates; former general counsel to Gov. Bob Graham and former chairman of Florida Ethics Commission.

Talking one-on-one with Steve and going beyond the impressive resume was a pleasure and an honor. We had a chance to explore how his experience as a Cuban American, Jewish immigrant shaped his career choices and interest in diversity. Given my own background of a Jewish family anchored in island life we had much to discuss. Our grandfathers had both come from Russia to escape the pogroms, the state-sanctioned massacres of Jews during the late 1800s and early 1900s. My family came to America and ended up in Bermuda. Steve’s grandfather had ended up in Cuba. Steve joked that grandpa thought he was going to America but got on the wrong boat. Not knowing either Spanish or English, he already had a pushke going by the time he realized he wasn’t in the U.S. A pushke was a peddler’s cart, a common tool for Jewish immigrants to earn a living and start a family business.

My own family started a dry goods store using a horse & buggy as its ‘pushke. Steve’s family business in Cuba was a tannery. The tannery was taken over by Castro in the 1961 revolution, as were many other businesses. Hundreds of Jewish families in Cuba fled to the United States. Steve noted that for his grandfather, this was the second experience of being a refugee. He didn’t expect to ever have a third time as a refugee; if America failed, there would be nowhere else to go. The ‘Jubanos’ established a synagogue in Miami as they adjusted to their new home. Steve now belongs to a more modern Reform Jewish synagogue, a transition that my family also made from its early immigrant roots.

Steve joked that I could write about my family and just insert his name. Not quite. When I asked Steve what made him go in the legal profession, his experiences as a 14-year old refugee were quite different from my experience coming to America. My trip from Bermuda was an eventful plane ride to New York, well-populated by fellow Jews and where people spoke a language closely related to my own British. He talked about how the police, the Cuban equivalent of the Russian KGB, pulled his family off the plane, isolated them and interrogated them.

He was separated from his parents for harrowing, terrifying hours. Steve describes the incident as “The moment that I knew I’d not allow that to happen again.” He never wanted to be anything but a lawyer and says, “I still have a passion it.”

Steve talked about his years in the legal profession and how he came to his new ABA position. He fleshed out the credentials listed on his resume and a story emerged of government service and professional leadership. Early in Zack’s career he served as aid to Florida Senator/Congressman Claude Pepper, spending several years in Washington D.C. Following a few years in a Miami law firm, he was asked by Governor Graham to again enter the political arena as general counsel in Tallahassee. Hooked on state government, Zack also chaired the State Ethics commission.

The next governor asked him to help re-work the State Constitution. Continuing on his leadership path, Steve became president of the Florida Bar association and then national president of state Bar presidents before getting involved in the Board of Governors of the ABA and leadership in the ‘Big Bar.’

My talk with Steve followed the ABA’s summit addressing ‘Diversity Fatigue.’ In his speech, Steve talked about arriving as an immigrant to a sleepy southern town in 1961 with all of the Southern prejudices that existed across the South. There were clubs and associations segregated by color, ethnicity and gender. Jews weren’t allowed in many places, nor could you speak Spanish. He wonders why we tolerated that discrimination. Looking to the future, he wonders what current practices we’ll look back on and see as discrimination.

Steve is passionate about preserving diversity in the legal profession. He focuses on the young people in the profession and wants them to see diversity as their issue, too. Central to that happening is the affordability of a legal education for minority students without whom there will be no pipeline of diverse lawyers. He asks if minority law school graduates have appropriate mentors during their school years. Do they have opportunities in major law firms and for partnerships? Recruitment is improving but retention is not. Many choose corporate law departments, bypassing the law firms where cutting edge legal issues are tackled.

Further, those who do graduate will have huge student loans, averaging $150,000. They will not be able to afford to work for legal aid services. Currently 50% of calls for help, mostly from women and minorities, go unanswered. Zack notes that the situation will only get worse given the current economic situation. Young lawyers, legal aid groups, their clients and society in general will suffer.

There is visible progress on some diversity fronts. Today, over 50% of those admitted to law school are women. Referring to our Black president, Zack applauds the progress, expresses concern when it comes to judges. “I believe that diversity on the bench is essential. The Court should look like the people who come before it.” Zack is passionate about the rule of law and the importance of the courts. He served as co-counsel during Al Gore’s election bid and is proud that America turns to its courts and its democratic principles, not its generals.

Zack notes that the ABA has a long history of involvement in the international rule of law issues. For example, the ABA organized marches in DC objecting to the removal of Pakistani judges and the arrests of Pakistani lawyers. He notes that the internet has taken people out of their communities and the isolation created by governments. Zack has spoken at law schools in China and Russia and reports that the students wanted to talk about the rule of law and freedom. Steve’s passion and broad experience is accompanied with a high degree of practicality and realism. The Diversity Fatigue conference resulted in 17 slides of suggestions and projects. Zack expressed his ongoing concern for a process that would prioritize those hundreds of good ideas, implementing them and assigning metrics to measure their success.

The process that is in place is responding to the big spike in the U.S. Hispanic population. ABA’s Commission on Hispanic Legal Rights and Responsibilities will be meeting to hear testimony on legal issues important to the Latino community and will soon issue its first set of policy recommendations. This effort and the dedicated work of the ABA Diversity Center are crucial to maintaining the rule of law and the strength of the United States justice system for generations to come.

With nearly 400,000 members, the American Bar Association describes itself as “the national voice of the legal profession, the ABA works to improve the administration of justice, promotes programs that assist lawyers and judges in their work, accredits law schools, provides continuing legal education, and works to build public understanding around the world of the importance of the rule of law.”

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