Karem Friedman and Genea Bell
Karem Friedman and Genea Bell (Gary Lewis)

With new slates of officers recently elected at the state’s two largest affinity bar organizations, there is an increased focus on working together to increase diversity within the legal community.

At the George W. Crawford Black Bar Association’s annual dinner on Thursday night, May 1, Genea Bell was sworn in as president of the organization, a post she will hold until mid-2015. Bell, an employment lawyer with Jackson Lewis, said one of her goals is for the organization to embark on initiatives that will encourage minority students to consider careers in the law.

“We’re focused on programming that can not only help grow attorneys, by offering information and counseling on legal careers, but also focused on young lawyers, once they get out of law school,” Bell said. “We’re looking at creating career fairs, and career panels, to offer people with information on what they can do with a J.D.”

The Connecticut Hispanic Bar Association recently elected as its president Karem Friedman, an in-house lawyer at Boehringer Ingelheim in Ridgefield. She replaced Erick I. Diaz, of the Hayber Law Firm.

“I’m very excited to lead the CHBA,” Friedman said. “I plan to continue our advocacy efforts for judicial diversity and look forward to expanding our community outreach initiatives, particularly on issues affecting the Hispanic community in the state.”

A lack of minorities in the top leadership ranks of the Connecticut Bar Association has prompted recent criticism from some lawyers. The fact that the statewide organization with over 9,000 members has not yet seen a non-white person president position was the subject of a recent editorial in the Connecticut Law Tribune.

In response, CBA President Kim Knox, and Mark Dubois, who is the incoming president, acknowledged that “the CBA could and should be even more diverse.” The “creation of full diversity within the association is a work in progress,” they wrote in a letter to the editor, in response to the editorial.

They noted that the organization has “a long history with an active and dedicated Diversity Committee.” Also, the CBA has set aside six seats in the CBA’s 60-member House of Delegates for representatives of the so-called “affinity” bars.

Bell, who has been involved with the Crawford bar for four years, said she was contacted by Dubois after she was elected. Bell said Dubois shared his commitment to improve diversity of CBA’s leadership. “We are certainly encouraged by Mark’s efforts,” she said.

While Bell would like to see some Crawford members elevated to decision-making positions, she noted that the two organizations serve different purposes. Like the CBA, Bell’s group focuses on professional development. “But more than the CBA, we also satisfy a more social and networking purpose,” she said, “to make sure people understand there is a substantial community of black attorneys and black law students in the state, so that people feel welcome to stay here and increase the numbers.”

The state’s affinity bar associations have always been tight-knit organizations, but in recent years they have increased their cooperative efforts with one another. For instance, Crawford and the CHBA recently pooled resources to provide legal assistance for homeless people staying in Hartford area shelters.

The two groups have also jointly participated in election season voter outreach programs. “We’re interested in setting up a program to support students at area law schools, to see how we can support students of color in making career choices,” said Fallon Depina Banks, the immediate past president of Crawford and an attorney at Wiggin and Dana.

Proloy Das of Rome McGuigan in Hartford, president of the Connecticut Asian Pacific Bar Association, said his organization has also increased its joint efforts with other affinity bar groups. For example, he said, CAPABA and CHBA planned a recent volunteer event at a Hartford soup kitchen.

Friedman, the new CHBA president, was also encouraged by Knox’s and Dubois’ recent comments expressing a commitment to diversity. She said Dubois expressed an interest in attending one of the CHBA’s monthly meetings.

“I know the CBA is trying to work on increasing representation from the different affinity bar groups, and we are part of that discussion,” she said. “I think there has been some steps taken, but there is still some way to go. There is a need for more opportunities for more diversity [at the CBA].”•