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Business Observer Friday, Feb. 18, 2005 17 years ago

Beyond the Comfort Zone

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Clearwater lawyers tackle the difficult subject of bigotry at a bar association luncheon.
by: Janelle Makowski Staff Writer

Beyond the Comfort Zone

By David R. Corder

Associate Editor

Nearly 20 years has passed since Lou Kwall became president of the Clearwater Bar Association. At the group's Feb. 10 luncheon he told a disturbing story of prejudice few people knew about.

It seems a now-deceased judge, who Kwall declines to identify, was upset the membership had elected a Jewish president. The judge refused to attend any of the group's meetings so long as Kwall served as president. To protest the election, Kwall says, the judge started breakfast meetings for Christian lawyers.

The action all those years ago might seem ancient if it wasn't for recent incidents that black attorneys Cheryl Smith-Khan and Darryl Rouson disclosed while sitting with Kwall during a panel discussion on the topic of diversity. Each spoke not just about the injustice of bigotry but how law firms must adjust their business hiring practices to meet the rapidly changing demographics in the legal profession.

It's a subject Kwall knows well. He has witnessed the changing demographics. It happened when the Florida Bar president assigned him during his term on the bar's board of governors to welcome new lawyers at a 2nd District Court of Appeal swearing-in ceremony.

"What I saw was over half the group was female and otherwise minority, including Hispanic, black, Asian and Indian," Kwall says. "Ten years from now the color of the Florida Bar is going to be very hard to decipher."

There's more to Kwall's understanding to these changing demographics, however. The law firm Kwall founded in the late 1970s became one of the first white-majority-owned Pinellas firms to hire a black lawyer in 1993. Greg Showers now serves as president of the recently renamed law firm of Kwall Showers Coleman & Barack PA.

The decision to hire Showers didn't come easily, Kwall recalls. It was apparent Showers was a bright and capable young lawyer, he says. Only Kwall struggled with the decision whether to hire Showers because of the fear of a backlash from others in the legal community who out of prejudice might have frowned on his decision.

"I would be lying to you, if I didn't tell you that," Kwall says. "I was up the whole night before. I kept thinking, 'Was I the person my mother and father taught me to be?' "

Despite the actions of attorneys such as Kwall, Smith-Khan and Rouson, a St. Petersburg attorney and president of the St. Petersburg chapter of the NAACP, told of recent incidents that shows just how much work remains for minorities in their fight for equality in the workplace.

About a week before the panel discussion, Smith-Khan witnessed a conversation that surprised her at its insensitivity. It happened when one lawyer in the conversation explained the circumstances of a case he had lost. She says another lawyer replied, " 'Yeah, you really got lynched.' " The reference stirs unwelcome memories for many blacks who recall the public lynching of blacks as recent as the 1950s.

Smith-Khan, a former assistant Pinellas state attorney who now works at Clearwater's Boyer & Schiltz PA, says she refrained from a confrontation. She didn't want the other lawyers to think she was so politically correct. On reflection, however, she talked about the need for continuing education about racial insensitivity.

One way to do that, she says, is to encourage more diversity training through the law schools, Florida Bar, judiciary and corporations. She adds it will take a dedicated effort by the legal community to reach out into the minority communities.

"We're so politically correct sometimes that we can't even talk about it," she says. "So step outside your comfort zone."

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