Is promoting diversity and inclusion within the legal profession an ethical responsibility for all lawyers? At least one advocacy group believes that it is, and has asked the American Bar Association to make a rule to that effect.

The Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession this month sent a letter to ABA president Laurel Bellows asking the organization to amend its Model Rules of Professional Conduct, which lay out the ethical and professional standards for all lawyers in the United States, to declare that lawyers have an obligation to promote diversity and inclusion.

“We think it’s a no-brainer,” said institute executive director Sandra Yamate, who credited the idea to Philip Morris International Inc. general counsel Marc Firestone, the group’s chairman. “This is a low-cost way to have an impact on the issue and for the ABA to meets its own stated goal.”

She referred to the ABA’s nonbinding Goal III, which has been around in some form since 1986 and calls for the elimination of bias in the profession and enhancement of diversity. A spokeswoman for the ABA offered no comment on the merits of the proposal but said that it would “work its way through the ABA’s legislative process.” The nonprofit institute was formed in 2009 with the goal of boosting diversity within the legal profession. It conducts research, promotes pipeline programs and holds lawyer training sessions geared toward making the legal profession more diverse in a variety of areas, including sex, race, age and religion.

The ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct guide attorneys in numerous practical areas, including the lawyer-client relationship, advertising and the structure and responsibilities of law firms. The rules stipulate that lawyers have a responsibility to complete at least 50 hours of pro bono work a year, but make no reference to diversity.

The rules represent recommendations only, but corresponding state rules often mirror the ABA’s, and those state rules are binding. The ABA’s adoption of a diversity rule would produce a “ripple effect” throughout the country, the institute’s letter reads.

Some states already have rules that encourage diversity. For example, Illinois counts activities or CLE courses focused on diversity toward the state’s professional responsibility training requirement.

Yamate said that the institute envisions a rule that promotes diversity based on race, sex, sexual orientation, disability and religion.

The Executive Board of the National Association of Women Lawyers has not yet discussed the idea, said president Beth Kaufman. “We’re going to take a close look at it and see if we want to join on it at this juncture or wait until there is a proposal before the ABA House of Delegates,” she said. “If this is something that may help jump-start the diversity effort, I think there’s a good chance NAWL will support it.”

The devil is always in the details with this type of proposal, said Robert Grey, executive director of the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity, which offers training to promising minority lawyers and law students. The council’s board of directors has not discussed the institute’s idea, he said.

“What will the rule say? What is it trying to accomplish? Does it come with sanctions?” Grey said. “All these things have to be evaluated when considering any proposal.”

The general concept of making diversity and inclusion an ethical responsibility will likely enjoy some support, he said, and the institute’s request gives the ABA a chance to look more closely at how different states and local bars have approached the issue and perhaps lead to some uniformity.

The institute asked that the ABA’s Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility develop a resolution for consideration by the House of Delegates in 2013.

“The legal profession continues to lag behind other professions in terms of diversity,” the institute wrote. “Given the importance of our justice system, and the roles and responsibilities that lawyers and judges bear, it is critical for our profession to affirmatively address diversity in the Model Rules of Professional Conduct.”

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