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Black legal community plots future direction of Earl B. Gilliam Bar Association

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Members of San Diego County's black legal community met recently to discuss the past, present and future of the Earl B. Gilliam Bar Association (EBGBA), an affiliate of the National Bar Association and California Association of Black Lawyers that represents the needs and interests of black lawyers, judges, professors and law students throughout Southern California.

Attorney Janice Brown, principal of Brown Law Group

Lei-Chala I. Wilson, a deputy public defender and past president of EBGBA.

a partner with Wilson, Petty, Kosmo and Turner.

Judge Gilliam was the first black U.S. District Court judge for the Southern District of California as well as the first black person to serve as a San Diego Superior Court judge.

Many of the organization's past presidents, as well as judges, lawyers, legal professionals and law students from all over San Diego County, convened for a day-long retreat and summit that commemorated the Bar Association's 30th anniversary. Among those in attendance were U.S. District Court Judge Napoleon Jones, U.S. Magistrate Judge William McCurine and Superior Court Judges Randa M. Trapp, Desiree Bruce-Lyle and Browder Willis.

According to summit facilitator Randy K. Jones, assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California, the purpose of the retreat, entitled "The Next 30 Years and Beyond," was to provide a brief historical overview and self-assessment of the Bar Association with the goal of becoming a more purpose-driven association in the future.

"In our discussions, we learned that many of the needs of the association remain the same as they were when the association was founded in 1976," Jones said. "We still have few black attorneys as judges or as partners in major law firms and there is still the need for black lawyers to be strong advocates for the rights of the people in our community. We concluded that there remains the need for an association that understands the unique challenges and pressures affecting black attorneys in the legal profession."

Jones said the Bar Association's current need is to invigorate the organization and attract new members.

"As a result of our discussions, the organization will embark on an ambitious three-year plan beginning in the fall to increase the number of black lawyers in San Diego, utilizing an aggressive recruitment and retention campaign," Jones said. "We also want to provide increased training, mentoring and job opportunities for our members and to educate the black community about their legal rights and responsibilities. We need our members' involvement as a way of providing mentors for our young people and to serve as legal watchdogs on justice and equality matters involving the community."

Jones added that in order to accomplish these goals, the organization has established a number of working committees that have been tasked with developing detailed action plans in the areas of recruiting, training, mentoring, job creation and community education.

Janice P. Brown, a past president of the organization and principal of Brown Law Group in downtown San Diego who is now chairing the Attorney Training Committee, will focus her committee's efforts on training methods that lead to success and satisfaction in the profession in addition to legal skill set training. She believes that if attorneys are confident they can obtain the tools they need to learn how to succeed in the practice of law; they will be drawn to the organization.

"We want to help lawyers of color succeed within the law firms where they work or by establishing their own firms by creating a mindset for success," Brown explained. "We feel we can accomplish that by teaching them how to set economic objectives, how to transition from one job to the next, how to network effectively and how to empower themselves and their practices by creating and building a brand. If they see the value in this kind of training, the organization will appear more attractive to them and will serve as an incentive to become involved."

Lei-Chala I. Wilson, a deputy public defender and past president of EBGBA who was selected to lead the association until November 2007, is heading up the Community Legal Watchdogs Committee. Believing that "an informed community is a better community," her committee's action plans call for a continuation of the regular community forums that she already facilitates, which address legal issues and serve to educate the public on legal matters that affect them in their daily lives.

Wilson said her committee will attempt to build stronger coalitions with a variety of legal, professional and community organizations like the NAACP, Urban League, ACLU and the National Council of Negro Women in order to advocate on behalf of the black community with regard to legal issues that directly impact them.

There will also be increased efforts to write and publish newspaper op-ed pieces and letters to the editor on topics related to furthering the cause of equal justice for blacks, which will provide needed exposure for the organization and focus increased attention on its cause as well as other relevant legal issues. Wilson added that a neighborhood law school and speaker's bureau will be established as a way of educating the community and placing important issues in front of them so they can be better-informed when it comes to their legal rights.

Another Bar Association past president, Vickie Turner, a partner with Wilson, Petty, Kosmo and Turner, is responsible for chairing the Attorney Recruitment Committee and has a well-conceived action plan already in place.

"The attorney recruitment committee will target a number of potential membership areas, including student graduates who haven't yet passed the Bar or are awaiting their results, students presently in law school, prior members and nonmember attorneys, and judges," Turner said. "We believe there are plenty of good opportunities for successful recruiting within these groups and we are planning events and activities designed to reach out to them."

Turner said the committee will conduct an aggressive direct mail and telephone campaign to encourage more black attorneys to join the organization. They will also hold several social events, including a happy hour in conjunction with the city's Juneteenth celebration, the oldest known celebration of the end of slavery, and a reception for law school students in the fall to introduce prospective members to the organization. A student recruitment committee and a mentoring program are also in the process of being established.

Following the summit, Wilson said it was inspiring to see so many judges, past presidents, long time supporters and new members take an interest in moving the Bar Association into the next 30 years and beyond.

"I am humbled to be a part of this endeavor," she said. "I look forward to the fellowship that this association offers and I'm excited to be working with so many individuals who are committed to addressing and meeting the needs of the San Diego African-American legal and general communities."

Brown said she was encouraged by the significant progress that was made in just one day and impressed by the group's positive energy and excitement over the direction in which the association is headed.

"The summit was a huge success in terms of communicating the organization's present and future needs and galvanizing the black legal community into taking substantive action," Brown said. "Coming away, we all got the sense that there is now a solid, well-conceived plan in place and we're inspired and motivated to collectively move forward in executing it."

Barrett is a staff writer for Beck Ellman Heald.

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