Robert J. Grey Jr. and James R. Jenkins Take the Helm of Two Major Bar Associations
James R. Jenkins
Leader, role model, and mentor, has attained the status and recognition that many in the legal community hope to emulate.
(Photo by David Barnes)
There was a time when the only organization of lawyers that African-American men and women could hope to lead was the National Bar Association, the organization of black lawyers. It was one of many national professional groups that people of color formed to nurture and train generations of leadership in their chosen professions.
Before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, the hard-and-fast rule was this: If the professional group was named "American," there was at least a 90 percent chance it was a virtually all-white group that barred entry to African Americans and other groups of color.
If the group was called "National," however, it meant there was at least a 90 percent chance that non-whites had formed it as a response to Jim Crow's1 slamming the "American" membership door in their faces. In a way, the discrimination was legal: Prior to the Brown v. Board of Education2 school desegregation decision and the subsequent modern civil rights movement, African-Americans were considered second-class citizens— not fully "American."
Today, all professionals in good standing—including women—can join any professional organization they wish.
And now, in the shadow of the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board, two black men, Robert J. Grey Jr., a partner in the Richmond, Va., office of Hunton & Williams, and James R. Jenkins, senior vice president and general counsel of Deere & Company, have been tapped this fall to lead two of the largest and most prestigious international associations of lawyers— groups not defined by race, creed, or gender.
Grey took the helm of the American Bar Association, while Jenkins will lead the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC, formerly known as the American Corporate Counsel Association; with more than 16,000 members worldwide, ACC is the largest bar association composed solely of in-house counsel). In fact, Jenkins is the first person of color to lead the ACC, which was founded in 1982. However, the news is not that both are the first blacks to lead their respective organizations—Grey is actually the second black president of the ABA; Dennis Archer, the former mayor of Detroit, was the first—but that they are both taking their prestigious posts at the same time, during the Brown anniversary year.
Robert J. Grey Jr.
Considered an example of the type of attorney that ha achieved the pinnacle of success.
(Photo by ABA/Elaine Odell)
In separate interviews with Diversity & the Bar®, both men viewed their elections not as social experiments, but as the natural evolution of their organizations. After all, they explain, in America, those who have proven themselves as leaders eventually get to lead.
"I think that it is indicative of a recognition by the members of the contributions that lawyers of color made in these organizations, and a recognition that there are those blacks ready for leadership in those organizations," says Grey. "I think it's coincidental that it happened during the 50th anniversary year of Brown v. Board," he adds.
"But it's one of those things that time has come—where leadership is shared by a cross-section of the population," Grey continues.
Jenkins says the "two-fer" has special significance: "I think what it reflects is the growing acceptance of diverse lawyers as leaders in the global legal community. We have always had outstanding lawyers who are active, well-known, and respected in dozens of local and national professional organizations. I think it's a simple function of opportunity. Whenever African-Americans have had a reasonable opportunity to participate, contribute, and lead as professionals, they have succeeded," says Jenkins.
This idea of doing well by working within the system is exemplified by the successes of Jenkins and Grey, who were involved in the civil rights movement and Vietnam.
In a Richmond Times-Dispatch op-ed from this past May, Grey recounted vivid memories of Jim Crow education in that city. "The first six years of my education were in segregated schools, and later I was one of the first to integrate my high school. That experience enabled me to form friendships with people, white and black, that last today. In more ways than I can articulate, I am a product of that ruling [Brown]," says Grey.
Grey went on to earn a bachelor's degree from Virginia Commonwealth University and a law degree from Washington and Lee University in Virginia.
Jenkins earned his bachelor's and law degrees from the University of Michigan. In between, he spent three years in the Army, including a year learning Chinese Mandarin, and a year as an interrogation officer in Saigon, Vietnam.
Both new leaders said they would maintain—and, in some cases, expand—the diversity efforts of their organizations. Jenkins says that diversity at ACC is a priority, and he plans to continue to build on the historical diversity initiatives of the ACC.
Grey says the ABA's diversity commitment would follow Archer's lead. He plans an umbrella committee to oversee the organization's three diversity-oriented committees: the Commission on Diversity, which deals with professional diversity issues; the Council on Racial and Ethnic Justice, which handles legal issues such as racial profiling; and the Advisory Council on Diversity, which encourages students of color to study the law. He also wants to expand and develop the ABA's scholarship program, which assists many law students of color.
Grey's other priorities include improving America's jury system. Juries, in Grey's view, should be respected as much as judges, be diverse and adequately paid, and be given all of the resources—including access to technology—they need to function properly in the 21st century. "The judges in our system ought to promote a representative jury, and we as lawyers should work toward that end," says Grey. He would also like to debate the issue of pre-emptive strikes, particularly in regards to race.
"Juries are the cornerstones of our democracy," Grey declares. "It's one of the finest acts of citizen participation in our government. It (jury duty) ought to be viewed as a high calling for citizens in this country," he emphasizes.
Both men recognized as a priority for their groups the idea of advancing the rule of law around an increasingly democratic world. Their philosophy: Lawyers are central to the maintenance of democracy.
Jenkins emphasizes that with the global reach of many corporations, the role of the corporate lawyer—which he defines as a legal guide, corporate governance navigator, and ethical conscience of the company—is more important than ever.
Ensuring that corporate actions are ethical as well as legal, says Jenkins, falls on the shoulders of the corporate counsel. He or she, Jenkins continues, provides guidance on what's law, what's policy, and what's the best corporate practice. "We have a unique opportunity to influence not only how business is done, but also the climate of what is right and what is wrong," he declares. "I think it's a natural role for lawyers who as a matter of training can demystify what is law, versus policy, versus best practice," he concludes.
Grey sees lawyers as essential players in a "global society that promotes respect and non-corruption…I think we're central to that," he adds.
According to Grey, the ABA will continue its initiatives to communicate with and train lawyers and judges in democracies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. After all, he points out, if a nation develops without the guarantees of the rights of the individual and the rights of individual property owners, "It's hard to act on that" as guardians of the law.
These guardians, led by those such as Jenkins and Grey, now range the color and gender spectrum. And those lawyers of color whose professional organizational ambitions were once limited to the ironic label of "National" are now helping to promote the rule of law internationally, free of any artificial or geographical borders.
Todd Steven Burroughs, Ph.D., is an independent researcher/writer based in Hyattsville, Maryland. He is a primary author of Civil Rights Chronicle (Legacy), a history of the civil rights movement, and several other books.
- Jim Crow refers to the series of laws that the former Confederate states passed after Reconstruction. These laws segregated Americans on the basis of race. They also refer to the unofficial racist policies of several white professional organizations prior to the civil rights movement. These policies would bar blacks and other people of color from all national professional organizations by unofficial, unspoken membership decree. Some of these organizations would have a token black person, so as to not look racist. The civil rights movement, with its focus on desegregating American society, pushed whites to fully desegregate their professional organizations in the late 1960s.
- See Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
From the September/October 2004 issue of Diversity & The Bar®