Can Law Firms Change Re: Diversity?

In the past decade, diversity and inclusiveness have become frequent topics of discussion among law firm leaders, corporate counsel and legal academics, and for good reason. The legal industry lags behind every other profession in creating inclusive environments that invite, promote and retain women and minorities.

Colorado’s legal community has been at the forefront of the discussion about how to change that. Local attorneys suggest  there’s still a long way to go before we’ll see a sea change, but as the leadership of the specialty bar associations can attest, their organizations are helping to make inroads for future generations.

The group of leaders recently met for a discussion of their own experiences as well as the work their organizations do for their communities and Colorado’s legal community as a whole.

Roundtable participants included Karen Hester, executive director for the Center for Legal Inclusiveness; Liz Krupa, vice president of Sections and Committees at Hispanic National Bar Association; Oliver McKinstry, president‑elect of Colorado Gay Lesbian Bisexual and Transgender Bar Association; Neeti Pawar, president of South Asian Bar Association of Colorado; Andrea Wang, president of the Asian Pacific Bar Association in Colorado; and Alison Zinn president of the Colorado Women’s Bar Association.

To read this story and other complete articles featured in the October 27, 2014 print edition of Law Week Colorado, copies are available for purchase online.

Bar associates voice judicial support

The judicial nomination process in Colorado relies on a “merit selection” plan and has since 1966, designed to remove political motives by avoiding elections. Although it’s not a democratic system, it strives to be a pluralistic one.

Specialty bars in the state have added another layer of scrutiny to the judge selection process for years. When a district or state judicial vacancy opens, the applications of interested attorneys are forwarded to a nomination commission within the district, which whittles the list down and typically sends three final nominees to the governor’s office. The nomination commissions comprise three attorneys and four non-attorneys with no more than four members belonging to one political party.

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Press Release: Man wrongfully convicted of murder at age 15 and sentence to life without parole freed after 14 years in prison

Denver, Colo. – Lorenzo Montoya was released from prison Monday after reaching a plea deal days before a scheduled hearing that would have revealed significant Constitutional flaws in his conviction and new evidence casting serious doubt on his guilt.  In January 2000, then fourteen-year-old Montoya was one of three Denver teens arrested and charged for alleged involvement in the brutal murder of a north Denver schoolteacher. Mr. Montoya, later convicted of felony murder and other charges, was sentenced to mandatory life without parole.

Mr. Montoya, now represented by lawyers from the Colorado non-profit Center for Juvenile Justice, Alternate Defense Counsel, and a team of pro bono lawyers and paralegals from the law firm Cooley LLP, filed a petition in June 2013 in Denver District Court challenging his convictions. The challenge was based on egregious Constitutional violations, including ineffective assistance of counsel and new evidence, including DNA.

Montoya’s post-conviction counsel, Lisa A. Polansky, Elizabeth Espinosa Krupa, and Peter J. Sauer, also succeeded in obtaining new DNA testing that produced powerful evidence of Mr. Montoya’s innocence. Additional new evidence included Montoya’s co-defendant, Nick Martinez, telling defense investigator, Gina Brovege, that Mr. Montoya had nothing to do with the brutal crime. In lieu of a hearing on Mr. Montoya’s claims or a new trial, the Denver District Attorney offered to dismiss all of the charges against Mr. Montoya and release him immediately in exchange for a guilty plea to accessory after the fact. The factual basis for this plea is that Mr. Montoya rode in a car stolen from the victim and did not reveal what he heard about the murder. After 14 years behind bars, including many in solitary confinement, Mr. Montoya pled guilty and was given a time-served sentence.

At Monday’s hearing presiding Denver District Court Judge Edward D. Bronfin expressed his “appreciation and admiration for … the District Attorney’s Office, for the work that Ms. Polansky, Ms. Krupa, Mr. Sauer, and all you have done, the Center for Juvenile Justice, and recognizing that in an imperfect world where things don’t always work right, it takes not only smart people but people who know right from wrong….”

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Additional background: Blume, John H. and Helm, Rebecca K., “The Unexonerated: Factually Innocent Defendants Who Plead Guilty”(2014). Cornell Law Faculty Working Papers. Paper 113. http://scholarship.law.cornell.edu/clsops_papers/113