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Thursday, Nov 30, 2023

New Bar Head Seeks Diversity

Richard A. Lewis’s first brush with the law came while he was with the U.S. Army’s Selective Reserve Forces. His unit was called into active duty, and some of the enlisted men sued the Defense Department, arguing that, under their contract, they could not be sent overseas except in the case of a declared war. It was 1968 and the Vietnam War was escalating, but it was an undeclared war. The unit won the case, but lost the battle. The Army disbanded the unit, dispersing its men to other units, and by the next year, Lewis found himself in a firefight that took the lives of a number of his comrades and earned him a purple heart. Now a Woodland Hills attorney with a practice focused on family law, probate, conservatorship, guardianship and estate planning, it’s been a long and winding road that has led Lewis to become an attorney and the first African American president of the San Fernando Valley Bar Association. Lewis returned to school after his discharge from the service, and upon graduation, joined Security Pacific Bank’s training program, becoming the first black trainee in the company’s Ventura/Santa Barbara/San Luis Obispo region. He rose to operations supervisor, but a love of political science sent him back to school at night, where he eventually shifted gears and became a teacher, a profession he pursued for 14 years until he married and began to think about a family. Concerned that his teaching salary wouldn’t support a family, Lewis turned to law school, entering a part time program at Southwestern School of Law. Initially, his law practice focused exclusively on family law, a specialty that came naturally to the former teacher. But Lewis decided he needed something to balance the emotional toll his practice took, and he has since added the more transactional specialties. Question: What do you hope to accomplish as the president of the San Fernando Valley Bar Association? Answer: The bar has adopted a strategic plan in which our goal is to become a beacon to our members, and in keeping with that goal one of my plans is a greater outreach. Because we have a large Spanish-speaking population here in the Valley one of the first things I wanted to do is establish a permanent relationship with the Mexican-American Bar Association, and that’s something we’re working on now. I want to make a greater outreach to the non-geographic bar associations, the Mexican-American Bar Association, the Asian-Pacific Bar Association. Working with our philanthropic arm, the Valley Community Legal Foundation, I’d like to work on programs that provide greater access to justice for women and children. In particular, this year congress passed a law in which they are requiring educational institutions that receive federal funds to provide programs that teach students about the constitution. I was hoping our bar association could be a leader in helping schools develop programs for their students in which they learn more about our constitution and our bill of rights. Most important I do want to work with other bar associations to encourage more minority youth to see the law as a profession so that they know there’s always room at the top if they work hard. That’s also something I really want to try and do to establish more of a program in which we can partner with schools. All of those things probably can’t be done during the first year but hopefully I can establish something that can continue. Q: There’s been an evolution of SFVBA initiatives in the past few years, moving from boosting the membership and services to members and now reaching outside the association. Do you think this is a natural evolution, or does it more reflect your personal orientation as the first African-American president of the association? A: I think some of it is a natural evolution. If you look at the ABA (American Bar Association) and our state bar there’s a real emphasis in increasing diversity in the bar, reaching out to high schools and programs to educate the public on our bill of rights, so there’s a natural evolution. Being the first African American president, maybe I have a greater awareness and a much greater commitment to that. That’s what I bring to the table. I think in terms of outreach, particularly to other minority boards, it may be a little easier for me to do that. I have a little more credibility. Q: What do you think about the negative stereotypes that typically attach to attorneys? A: In every profession there are bad apples. But like I said in my induction address, lawyers are really quite essential. There’s an old Jewish saying that without law, civilization dies. But law itself, at least to me, is really an abstraction without lawyers to breathe some type of life into it. Law does not reside in books or stone tablets. It’s in the advocacy of attorneys, their advice and actions, and that’s the real dynamic and strength of the law. Civilization needs law. Law needs lawyers to make it work. I see the law and attorneys are being a very essential part of our society. Q: How much of an impact do you think you can make on that image, especially when the job lawyers are charged with, often makes them a target for these stereotypes. A: I think talking about the good things that lawyers do we’re not all about lining our pockets. We’re about helping the community, like our Valley Community Legal Foundation where we give out scholarships and grants and we help organizations like Haven Hills, the Alliance for Children’s Rights, we have a Blanket the Homeless program there are a lot of things attorneys do selflessly in terms of the number of hours they spend and pro-bono work. And so I think in some ways it’s a matter of making that known. There are many examples of our members giving back to the community. It’s just a matter of people finding out about our good works and that’s something hopefully that I can do. Q: Why did you decide to leave your teaching career for law? A: I really loved teaching. I met my wife and we dated and then we agreed that teachers weren’t very well paid. They still aren’t, but it was even worse then. I thought I wouldn’t be able to raise a family on a teacher’s salary, and that’s when I started thinking about law. So I started looking at programs where I could go to law school at night. Southwestern School of Law had a four-year night program, and I taught during the day. Then I graduated and took the bar and passed the first time. Q: Is law your last career change? Are you interested in a judgeship? A: In terms of switching careers to something else, I wouldn’t do that. In terms of becoming a judicial officer, if I were so lucky to be able to do that I would consider that quite an honor. Q: The SFVBA, at least if you attend some of the group’s events, does not seem to reflect a lot of diversity. Do you think there is a community of black attorneys that have not come forward in the association, or does achieving diversity rest with the next generation? A: If you go to the installations, there aren’t that many dark faces there and that was one of the things that, in terms of my installation, I wanted to change. I think there are two things. Our bar association has over 2,100 members, but in terms of the really active members in the bar it’s a very small number. We, because we don’t keep records in terms of ethnicity, the black attorneys, I believe a lot of them are members of our association but that’s something that I really need to find out because that’s something I want to work on. But in terms of being very active with the association obviously there’s a real lack. I would like to see more African-American attorneys, Latino attorneys, Asian attorneys become much more active with the association, and when we talk about, our goals, there is a commitment to seeking a greater diversity and it’s a consistent theme. Diversity is a theme of our state bar and our association, so I really want to make that a reality. First of all because it’s right to do it. I think the image of our bar will only be helped by showing that it’s a much more diverse bar. When I was in Chicago at the bar leadership institute, there’s a committee on diversity, and I was speaking with one of the people there. And she said, ‘you must be very happy you’re going to be the first African American president,’ and I said, ‘yeah, it’s great, but I just don’t want to be the last.’

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