The Pennsylvania Bar Association’s first diversity officer will be responsible not only for working with law firms and other legal organizations to improve the number of diverse attorneys within their ranks but also to improve diversity among the association’s membership.

The PBA believes that it is the first statewide bar association to hire a diversity officer, PBA President Matthew J. Creme Jr. said.

Janis M. Leftridge, of Harrisburg, started last week as the PBA’s first diversity officer for an organization representing 28,000 lawyers.

Leftridge said she has spent her entire career working on efforts to increase the presence of women and minorities within the spice industry, the life sciences industry and for a regional economic development organization.

“When I read the posting for [the diversity officer position], I felt that it was a great fit for my background and that I would be able to make a positive contribution to the organization … to find out what minorities are in the profession in the state and then having them find value in the Pennsylvania Bar Association and become members and … then for the majority of the attorneys to understand that it’s to their benefit to expand their participation with minority attorneys because the bottom line is they get more custom and their business grows,” Leftridge said.

Creating a staff position dedicated to diversity within the Pennsylvania bar was recommended by a diversity task force started just before the close of former PBA President Clifford E. Haines’ tenure, Creme said. The PBA Board of Governors adopted the recommendation from the task force dedicated to the issue.

The PBA does not have good information on its members who are from a diverse background, including how the PBA could best serve their needs, Creme said, so one of Leftridge’s responsibilities will be to gather that information.

The questions that have to be answered include, “How do we serve those people?” Creme said. “How do we include those people in decision-making and governance? How do we as an association benefit from the talent and the points of view those people could bring to the table?”

Samuel T. Cooper III, a partner with Dilworth Paxson in Harrisburg and co-chair of the diversity task force, said that while the PBA has been involved in diversifying the legal profession for a long time through various committees, the task force “felt the time had come to really institutionalize the efforts more.”

Membership in the PBA is not mandated, Cooper said, and the PBA would like to increase the diversity of its members and increase the overall number of members by recruiting more attorneys of a diverse background to become members.

“We hope we increase our membership and diversity of our members so we have an organization that is even more representative of attorneys who are participating in it,” Cooper said.

Leftridge’s background seems ideal to accomplish the goals of the position because she grew up in a small city, lived in a large city, worked in legal academia as an assistant director of law admissions, worked in the corporate sector and worked for a community nonprofit, Creme said.

While earning her law degree in an evening program at the University of Baltimore School of Law, Leftridge worked as an assistant director of law admissions for the same law school. Leftridge said that when she was a law student she worked to expand where her school recruited students to include historically black colleges and she helped start a mentoring program.

Leftridge, who also has a master’s degree in social work, said she knew in law school that she was not interested in litigation and she wanted to use her law degree to work in a “more conciliatory role.”

After being admitted to the bar in 1981, Leftridge worked as a human relations manager for McCormick & Co. in Sparks, Md., including on an initiative to increase the number of minorities in the spice company’s ranks and preparing McCormick’s compliance reports for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

From McCormick, Leftridge said she was recruited to work for life sciences company Bayer Corp. in Pittsburgh as a human relations consultant.

Leftridge’s final position before joining the PBA last week was as the senior director for business diversity for the Harrisburg Regional Chamber of Commerce and Capital Region Economic Development Corp. In that position, Leftridge created a mentoring process for minority contractors to learn how to become contractors with the state government and for minority businesses to have mentorship from a larger company.

Leftridge, of Susquehanna Township, said she is “one of the sandwich generation folks” and she came back to the Harrisburg area to take care of her aging parents.

Leftridge, who said she loves reading, quilting and walking, also has a grown son who coaches soccer.

In addition to the creation of Leftridge’s position, the task force has recommended that a diversity team be created within the PBA to develop cross-collaboration between the PBA committees and other groups working on diversity initiatives, Creme said. The diversity team was approved by the Board of Governors in May.

William H. Pugh V, of Kane Pugh Knoell Troy & Kramer in Montgomery County and the other co-chair of the diversity task force, said the group met 37 times between May 2010 and May 2011. While there are many groups within the PBA structure working on diversity in the legal profession, the task force concluded it was important to have a point person whose sole purpose is to initiate and monitor diversity initiatives, Pugh said.

The task force’s other recommendations that another at-large minority governor be added to the Board of Governors and that the nominating committee be made more diverse have been adopted, Pugh said.

The task force is also mulling recommending that there be term limits for the House of Delegates and for the Board of Governors.

“The strength of any organization is in its membership and to have a more diverse organization can only strengthen membership and can be more inclusive to people,” Pugh said.

Leftridge said that diversity among the Pennsylvania bar has improved, but that it still needed to improve.

“Individuals, in their minds, have a whole wide range of what diversity means,” Leftridge said. “The bottom line with diversity is that you’re seeking to help people understand the positive aspects of being open to diversity.” •