ABA, NBA Presidents on Black Legal Leadership: Is There a Shift?

Though Black women have helmed the American Bar Association and National Bar Association in the past, the presidencies of Deborah Enix-Ross, who now leads the ABA, and Lonita Baker, the new NBA head, mark the first time Black women have led both simultaneously.

Baker, lead co-counsel for the team that represented Breonna Taylor’s family in their civil suit against the City of Louisville, is hesitant to call this a “shift in things.” She hopes, however, that Black lawyers’ work over the last two years, including 2020’s justice struggles, will bring prestige for their contributions to the legal profession.

“I’m hoping that people were able to see the work of lawyers and Black lawyers in those fights,” Baker said. “I hope they realize that Black attorneys truly can make a difference in this world and push for change.”

The two presidents have led diverse careers across public service and corporate law.

Enix-Ross has spent the last two decades at Debevoise & Plimpton. She is now a New York City-based senior adviser of the firm’s international dispute resolution group and member of its Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council.

Baker has practiced as a public defender, county attorney and civil rights attorney. She is now corporate counsel for Waystar, a Louisville health care software company.

Enix-Ross and Baker spoke with Bloomberg Law about their paths to the bar association presidencies, the legal profession’s diversity, and how lawyers can press forward on social justice.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Bloomberg Law: Neither of you are the first Black women to lead your organizations. Do you believe that you represent a shift in the legal profession for Black women in leadership?

Deborah Enix-Ross: Paulette Brown was the first Black female president of the ABA, and that was in 2015. I am the second. The ABA has had 10 female presidents before me, starting in 1995. But bear in mind the ABA is 144 years old. It’s only in the last decade or two that we’ve seen this kind of progress.

Lonita Baker: I hope it’s a shift, but I don’t know that we are at a point where we can truly call it a shift. I’m the 80th president in 98 years for the National Bar Association, but I’m only the 15th woman.

BL: What does this role represent for you?

Enix-Ross: It represents an opportunity to continue serving the profession I love—and in a larger sense, to serve the rule of law and the nation, too.

The ABA is the voice of the legal profession in the United States and around the world. To be the leader of that association, to be a spokesperson for justice and freedom and the rule of law—that’s a tremendous responsibility, and a great honor.

Baker: It is a representation of change and creating opportunities for Black lawyers in the profession.

But it’s also a push for change in the National Bar Association, getting the accolades and the recognition that it deserves as an organization with a rich history. My goal is to make sure that the world knows that the National Bar Association holds a prominent place in the legal profession.

BL: Did you set out years in advance to become president?

Enix-Ross: I didn’t set out to be president of the ABA, but I found a sense of community and was determined to use my skills and talents in any way that I could to better the ABA and the profession.

Baker: I did not join with any intention to one day become president. I engaged in leadership because I believed in the organization and what the organization stood for—and I had come to grow my NBA family.

BL: What do you hope to accomplish during your tenure?

Enix-Ross: Americans are badly divided politically. Faith in institutions is eroding. There’s a growing distrust of one another. We have seen attacks on the justice system, on the norms of our democracy, and on the rule of law.

Lawyers are trained to be leaders. We are uniquely positioned to work toward solutions. We must lead the way in promoting civics, civility and collaboration — the cornerstones of our democracy — to restore confidence in our institutions, in the justice system and to protect the rule of law.

Baker: The three things I hope to accomplish are that our members become reconnected with each other amidst Covid, that we’ve reconnected with our communities, and that we reconnect with ourselves.

We know that this is a stressful career path, with rates of suicide among attorneys—just the the burnout, the people leaving the profession because of the stressful conditions, or just the health ailments that come. I want to get back to focusing on self-care within this profession.

BL: What are some challenges facing the organization?

Enix-Ross: One of the biggest problems is not within the association but within the nation. Young people and Black people, particularly, do not believe that the justice system treats everyone equally. They believe the system has racial biases built into its rules and practices.

There is no single solution to a systemic problem like that, but we are working mightily to improve the system.

Baker: There’s dwindling membership that bar associations all face.

I look at the impact that the National Bar Association can continue to make—making sure that Black communities have advocates on their behalf, making sure that we continue to build the pipeline for more Black attorneys in America, making sure that we have a more diverse judiciary.

If we have more support, and more members across the country, we could have even a greater impact in those areas.

BL: What do you think of diversity in the legal profession since 2020?

Enix-Ross: It is slowly improving but the problem persists. There are too few people of color and too few women. That’s not healthy. The justice system should reflect the population it serves.

We need to continue encouraging young students of color to become lawyers and eventually judges. We are already seeing results on the gender gap. A majority of law students today are women.

Baker: 2020 did force the legal profession, and law firms, and companies, to re-look at the model.

We had some some wins. Justice has been slow for Breonna Taylor, but there were indictments.

I’m hoping that people were able to see the work of lawyers and Black lawyers in those fights. I hope they realize that Black attorneys truly can make a difference in this world and push for change. So I hope to see that number come up.

BL: How can the legal profession press forward on social justice?

Enix-Ross: The ABA is a leading voice in the profession for social justice reform.

ABA leads a group of 60 law schools in 32 states in the Legal Education Police Practices Consortium. The group is collaborating on projects to develop better police practices and eliminate tactics that are racially motivated or have a disparate impact based on race.

At the ABA Annual Meeting this month, the House of Delegates adopted resolutions supporting new standards for diversion to reduce mass incarceration, and new sentencing policies to allow a “second look” for inmates who have been imprisoned for 10 years or more.

The ABA has conducted studies in seven states to assess the adequacy of public defender offices. In each one, we found the offices are not adequately staffed or funded.

Baker: We really have to be pushing our legislative bodies—local, state and federal—for change and true equity.

If we were more equitable financially as a community—as a whole—we wouldn’t need so much criminal justice reform. Or there wouldn’t be as many contacts with law enforcement, which leads to greater instances of people being killed by police or improperly arrested.

If the education system were more equitable, then we could have greater opportunities to economic success. It’s circular. At the top of that, and one of the things that the National Bar Association always focuses on, is voting rights and election protection.

BL: What do you wish you knew when you first entered the legal profession?

Enix-Ross: It is important to forge your own path. I have not followed a traditional path in the law. I began as a legal services attorney and went on to practice in a variety of settings, including as the American representative to the Paris-based International Chamber of Commerce International Court of Arbitration, the World Intellectual Property Organization’s Arbitration and Mediation Center in Geneva, Switzerland, Price Waterhouse, and my current firm, Debevoise & Plimpton.

One of the advantages of being a lawyer is we have flexibility in choosing our practice settings and areas of focus. Although my career path may seem disparate, dispute resolution is the thread that runs throughout my career choices. At the beginning of my career, it was not easy for people of color to practice international law. But I just kept pushing forward because I knew it was what I wanted to do. I knew that I had skills and talents that could be used in international arbitration.

Baker: When I went to law school, I was going with the intent of being a sports and entertainment lawyer. I loved football and I wanted to be an agent. But I stayed at home in Louisville, Kentucky, which has no professional sports team. I wish I had known that you really have to plan out where you want to be and where you want to work.

BL: What advice do you have for young, early career lawyers?

Enix-Ross: Join the American Bar Association and become active. It will help you become a better lawyer. It will give you a sense of purpose—to belong to a national group that is working to improve justice in America and around the world. Find a niche. Find the place within our association where you can network, make friends with like-minded lawyers and learn from the best. Every specialty and legal interest has a place in the ABA.

Baker: Seek out mentors and sponsors and know the difference between them. Sometimes one person can be both.

Keep your mind open and know that just because things don’t seem to work out the way that you think they should be working out, they’re probably working out the way they’re supposed to be.

BL: What do you want your legacy to be?

Enix-Ross: I hope lawyers will say, “She made us proud to be part of the legal profession. She helped make the system more just, and she stood up for civility and cooperation a time when both were in short supply.”

Baker: I would like for my legacy to be that I genuinely cared about the well-being of other people. As it relates to being the president of the National Bar Association, that I fulfilled the legacy that our organization was founded upon.