Embracing Change and Improving Professionalism in the Bar

Bonnie Richardson

Congratulations to Portland attorney Bonnie Richardson, recipient of the 2016 Multnomah Bar Association (MBA) Professionalism Award! This honor is presented to lawyers who exemplify the highest ethical standards and conduct in the practice of law and who make the practice of law more enjoyable. The award was presented in May at the MBA’s 110th Annual Meeting and Dinner and Judges Reception; the following is excerpted from Ms. Richardson’s acceptance speech.

To explain what professionalism means to me and how I interact and react to people as a trial lawyer, I think it’s important to share with you my background and where I came from.

My mom and dad met when my dad was stationed in Yokohama, Japan during the Vietnam War. My mom is Japanese and my dad is white and American. After they married in Japan, they moved to California in 1970. They later moved to Oklahoma when I was a toddler and my brother was an infant. My dad started college in Oklahoma on the GI Bill, while my mom worked at a grocery store to support my family.

My brother and sister and I grew up in Oklahoma in the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. Growing up as a bi-racial family in a place that wasn’t exactly welcoming to the “mixing of races” and especially not welcoming — in fact quite hostile — to any non-Christian beliefs (like my family), we learned to blend in as much as we could, and to listen and observe and to not openly challenge people who hate you because of your race and religion. But I always had the urge to challenge what I thought was wrong and to enforce what I thought was right. That was why I was drawn to the law from a young age.

When I came to Portland with my husband in 1998, I didn’t see many people in the MBA who looked like me or with whom I had much in common. Like Oklahoma, I could fly under the radar; I could listen and I could learn. And I did learn. I learned from the older generation of attorneys, most of whom didn’t look like me, but who helped me tremendously. They were willing to be mentors, give advice and show me what they knew, even though I was different.

They are the generation who created this professionalism award back in 1989, because they were concerned that they were losing the camaraderie that bound them all together. They thought there were just too many lawyers (2,600 MBA members back then). They wanted to focus on the importance of professionalism.

But it wasn’t only the growing number of attorneys that was changing the bar. It was also the make-up of the bar. It was no longer predominantly white men. 1989 was the same year that Oregon Women Lawyers (OWLS) was founded. The bar was changing.

What they might not have realized in 1989 was this: to keep professionalism in our bar, lawyers should not only focus on being respectful to each other, but to be open to adapting to the change in the make-up of our bar and how we interact. To do that, you have to be willing to really listen, to be aware of changing attitudes and perceptions, and to incorporate that into your everyday practice so that you can be a more effective advocate, a better judge or give good advice to your client.

I learned many things from the older generation, but now, as I transition into that “older bar number,” I realize I can learn so much more from our young generation of attorneys, the changing faces in our bar.

The young attorneys who are already leaders — these are the people who are the future of our profession. They will be partners, judges, clients and opposing counsel. These are the attorneys who are changing our bar and will enhance the professionalism in our bar.

Recognizing and respecting the differences in who we are — whether in the way you treat opposing counsel or how you seek out mentees or mentors — is a fundamental part of professionalism. It is the ability to recognize and respect people of all types, whether that is age, race, background, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

That’s what I learned from my parents: listen and learn from those around you and then figure out how to make changes for a better practice and community.

Would you like to recognize a WSBA member for professionalism? Professionalism in Practice is a way for lawyers and judges to honor others in the profession who have conducted themselves in a highly professional manner consistent with the spirit of the Creed of Professionalism. Download the nomination form here.