New York City Bar Association, 42 W 44th St.7-22-2016
New York City Bar Association, 42 W 44th St.7-22-2016 (NYLJ / Monika Kozak)

The New York City Bar Association and a coalition of bar groups for women and minorities are calling on the state court system to require attorneys to take courses in diversity and inclusion as part of their biennial registration.

In a letter addressed to Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, the group said it wants attorneys to report the completion of the diversity CLE hours as part of their 20 hours of non-ethics credits.

“Despite efforts by many New York City law firms to increase their engagement and investment in diversity progress and retention, the attrition rate of minority attorneys at those and other New York law firms remains disproportionately high,” the letter stated. “We must do more to reverse this trend.”

John Kiernan, president of the city bar and a partner at Debevoise & Plimpton, said in an interview that, while a CLE course is “not the only step” that the legal profession should take to increase its embrace of diversity, it would be a “positive step for the profession to improve its record in this area.”

“What this is is a recognition that we’re not where we want to be as a profession and that there’s value in continuing to focus to do more,” he said.

Kaylin Whittingham, a Manhattan solo attorney and president of the Association of Black Women Attorneys, which also signed off on the letter, said the CLE requirement could help to break down preconceived biases between members of different groups. She said that the legal profession often works to increase diversity in other industries, while law itself is one of the least diverse white-collar professions.

“If we can’t take responsibility and make this part of what we do, then how can we ask others to do it?” she asked.

Meredith Miller, president of the LGBT Bar Association of Greater New York which also signed the letter, said that the new requirement not only could improve attorneys’ interactions with their clients, but also could improve relations between attorneys in the workplace.

“Adding another requirement is something that everybody is reluctant to do, but we thought the benefits outweighed any further administrative burdens,” Miller said.

The other groups signing the letter are the Amistad Long Island Black Bar Association, Association of Black Women Attorneys, Association of Law Firm Diversity Professionals, Dominican Bar Association, Hispanic National Bar Association, Jewish Lawyers Guild, Long Island Hispanic Bar Association, Metropolitan Black Bar Association, Muslim Bar Association of New York, New York City Bar Association, Puerto Rican Bar Association and the South Asian Bar Association of New York.

Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for the court system, said in an email that the groups’ recommendation has been received and that system officials “will take a careful look at their proposals.”

Changes to CLE requirements is subject to approval by the New York State Continuing Legal Education Board.

Board chair Betty Weinberg Ellerin, who is senior counsel at Alston & Bird, declined to comment on the proposal on Friday because she has not had a chance to discuss it with fellow board members.

Ellen Makofsky of Makofsky & Associates in Garden City, who chairs the New York State Bar Association’s committee on continuing legal education, said through a spokeswoman that the committee is “carefully analyzing” this issue and will comment on it eventually but has not yet completed its review.

In February, the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates unanimously adopted Resolution 107, which recommends that all jurisdictions with mandatory CLE adopt diversity and inclusion programs without increasing the number of required CLE hours.

According to an ABA report, of the 45 states with mandatory CLE, only California and Minnesota had adopted standalone diversity CLE requirements.

California attorneys are required to take a one-hour CLE couse of education on eliminating bias in the legal profession or society course every three years, the report states, while Minnesota attorneys are required to take two hours of education on eliminating bias every three years.