Assistant District Attorney Shelly Okere speaks outside the old Penobscot County Courthouse on Hammond Street in Bangor on June 23. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

Krystal Williams, 46, was one of nine non-white students who graduated in 2017 from the University of Maine School of Law.

The Portland lawyer doesn’t know how many of her fellow lawyers are Black like she is because no organization in Maine — not even the Board of Overseers of the Bar that licenses attorneys — gathers statistics on race or ethnicity. The Maine State Bar Association does not have a subcommittee devoted to understanding and promoting diversity as it does for women members.

And that’s a problem, Williams said.

“Where we attorneys in Maine go astray is by thinking that Maine’s lack of diversity is justified because Maine is an overwhelmingly white state,” Williams said. “This perspective ignores the diversity that does exist in Maine, no matter how small.”

Krystal Williams Credit: Courtesy of Krystal Williams

In April 2015, Harvard’s Institute of Politics released a poll of 18 to 29-year-olds showing only half believed the U.S. criminal justice system could judge people without exhibiting racial bias. That disparity was more pronounced among Black people: 66 percent said they had little or no confidence that the judicial system is color blind. The survey was released in the aftermath of the Baltimore riots that erupted over the death of Freddie Gray, a Black man who died while in police custody.

According to the American Bar Association, Blacks make up nearly 3 percent of lawyers in the U.S. Latinos make up fewer than 4 percent, Asians nearly 8 percent and Native Americans only .2 percent of the entire legal profession.

These disparities are more striking when you look at the number of incarcerated individuals by race, according to an article published by a national legal organization in January, which shows more than 60 percent of inmates are racial or ethnic minorities.

The takeaway: when minorities charged with crimes enter the justice system and see no one who looks like them, they feel shut out — and that’s a fail for democracy.

The lack of diversity in Maine’s legal community became a hot topic this month when the bar association sponsored a June 15 forum on racial justice that was streamed on YouTube. It was moderated by the organization’s president, Thaddeus Day of North Yarmouth, who allowed Augusta attorney Leah Baldacci to make several controversial remarks about white privilege. Her comments created an uproar in Maine’s legal community and Day was forced to apologize for not reining her in.

A letter signed by 120 lawyers and law students demanded the organization take action on its commitment to “develop and deliver programming around racial equality.” The letter asked the bar association to create a lawyers of color section and collect data on the race and ethnicity of its members.

The bar association — to which about 2,900 of the 3,872 lawyers who live and work in Maine belong — announced Thursday that it would do those things, as well as create a permanent committee to address inclusion, diversity and equality; collaborate with law firms to recruit more Black lawyers to Maine; reach out to organizations working with Black youth to talk about careers in the law; partner with University of Maine School of Law on diversity and inclusion programs; and improve training about diversity for its board members and staff.

“Our mission calls on us to support a fair and effective system of justice,” Day said. “We have a mandate to act on this issue.”

Williams said the bar association is taking some good first steps as an organization, but board members need to do more.

“There is a real opportunity for the MSBA to proactively set and communicate its vision for a more equitable Maine bar, and it will require that each member of the Board of Governors take the time to educate themselves on systemic racism and commit to personally change deeply ingrained habits of thought and action that may, unconsciously, perpetuate inequality in Maine,” Williams said.

Shelly Okere, an assistant district attorney in Penobscot County and most likely Maine’s only Black prosecutor, was dismayed by Baldacci’s comments and the lack of criticism from her peers on the panel. She and her family moved to Bangor five years ago from the Cleveland area when her husband, a cardiologist, took a position at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center.

Assistant District Attorney Shelly Okere speaks outside the old Penobscot County Courthouse on Hammond Street in Bangor on June 23. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

In her work as a prosecutor, Okere, 37, often deals with defendants who have never met a Black person before.

“People aren’t necessarily racist, they’re just ignorant,” Okere said. “Sometimes, I go to the courthouse and announce myself as the prosecutor. Still people walk up to me and say, ‘I’d like to talk to the prosecutor.’”

She said some defendants have even told her that she isn’t the prosecutor because “there are no Black prosecutors in Maine.”

“I almost feel I have an obligation to stay here because if I leave, if my family leaves, if people like me leave, people will just remain ignorant,” she said.

Williams, who fell in love with Maine when she hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2011, believes it will take a sustained effort to recruit and keep a significant number of lawyers of color in Maine.

“The challenge here is that bringing in one or two attorneys of color at a time is unlikely to be successful because people stay in a place where they are able to find a community that speaks to them and their needs,” Williams said.

Williams created a virtual space for lawyers of color to network and ultimately help the Maine bar and bench become more diverse. She said her inspiration for the site was Macon Bolling Allen, believed to be the first Black American licensed to practice law and hold a judicial position in the country.

Allen received his law license in Maine after passing the state bar exam in 1844, but left Maine because he was unable to build a successful practice here. After leaving the state, Allen built a distinguished legal career and became a justice of the peace in Massachusetts in 1848. When the Civil War ended, he moved to South Carolina where he opened his own law practice.

More than 150 years after Allen passed the Maine bar, District Court Judge Rick E. Lawrence, 64, of Portland became the state’s first and only Black jurist. He was nominated to the bench in 2000 by then Gov. Angus King and renominated every seven years since.

But when Lawrence was in high school, a guidance counselor told him that because he was Black, he should pursue a trade rather than college. He also had a disturbing encounter with police while still in school.

“When I was a teenager, a NYC transit cop stopped me on a subway platform and searched me at gunpoint for carrying a suspected knife, which was just the pencil in my pocket to be used at the summer science program I was attending,” Lawrence said.

In his 20 years on the bench, the judge said he has seen a slight increase in the diversity of the Maine bar.

“That increase, however, is far too modest over that long a stretch of time,” Lawrence said. “The perspective that attorneys of color bring to bear in the courtroom are as varied as the life experiences each of them has had in getting to the practice of law. It is by no means monolithic. I would venture to say, however, that it is the sum total of a series of events that most likely are significantly different than that of most of the other members of the bar in Maine.”

He said that the state and the law school need to be more proactive in their efforts to increase diversity in the legal community.

“It took a full 180 years from the time that Maine became a state before the first person of color joined the Maine bench,” Lawrence said. “It is now 20 years and counting since my appointment. I respectfully submit that it would be a regrettable stain on the character of this state if it takes another 160 years before the next person of color becomes a jurist in Maine.”