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Reflecting on the Inaugural Shades of Mass Conference – Increasing Diversity in MDL Leadership

The inaugural Shades of Mass Conference (SOM) took place last August in Atlanta with one singular mission: increasing racial diversity in leadership roles of multidistrict litigation (MDL). Attorney LaRuby May, of May Lightfoot PLLC and of-counsel, Levin Papantonio Rafferty (LPR), is a founding executive committee member of the Shades of Mass board. In her practice, May supports Black and Brown communities that are disproportionately impacted and excluded from mass tort litigation. She serves on the Plaintiff’s Executive Committee for Paraquat and represents clients injured by 3M earplugs and Zantac. May walked away from the conference feeling inspired.

“The inaugural conference for Shades of Mass was an amazing experience,” May said. “The opportunity to meet and share with so many Black and Brown lawyers who want to understand and participate in the Mass Tort world was inspiring.”

May said she talked to one conference participant who commented it was the best conference he had ever attended. “He was able to really hear and learn about what mass tort is and tangible ways to participate,” May said.

May said she is also thankful for the support of LPR and the firm’s commitment to developing her leadership as a Black mass torts lawyer. “I look forward to the continued efforts that we will share with the community as SOM continues to grow and inspire the next generation of Mass Torts lawyers,” she said.

The Importance of Increasing Diversity in MDL Leadership

According to Law.com, “an average of only 5% of [MDL leadership] appointments went to lawyers who identified as nonwhite; 4% of attorneys had undetermined ethnicity in the data, [and] 91% were white.” SOM board members believe it’s time to make a change in this leadership. The vehicles SOM focuses on for such change are mentorship, advocacy, networking, and education.

Attorneys Ben Crump, of Ben Crump Law, and Diandra “Fu” Debrosse Zimmerman, of Dicello Levitt Gutzler, founded SOM to put these vehicles in motion. It is their goal to provide opportunities and advantages to “qualified attorneys of color,” lighting the path so judges know where to find these lawyers, while also educating judges on the importance of diversity in leadership roles.

A Meeting of Some Highly Influential Minds

The SOM Inaugural Conference featured an array of special guests: Honorable Cedric Richmond, Senior Advisor to the White House and Director of Public Engagement in the Biden Administration; Honorable Lucy McBath of the U.S. House of Representatives, 6th Congressional District, Georgia; Honorable Kwame Raoul, Attorney General of Illinois. Hip hop artist, Doug E. Fresh, provided some well-received entertainment.

The list of heavy hitters comes as little surprise, given the minds behind the conference—and their commitment to SOM’s mission.

When SOM board members met via Zoom to discuss the inaugural conference, each shared their thoughts and inspirations for the event. Included in this illustrious meeting were Zimmerman, Crump, May, Gregory Cade of Environmental Litigation Group, and Larry F. Taylor, Jr., of The Cochran Firm Texas (Navan Ward, Jr., of the Beasley Allen Law Firm, also a member of the founding executive committee, did not participate in this virtual meeting).

Ben Crump

Crump referred to SOM as a “groundbreaking endeavor” that must inspire the next generation of social justice engineers. He expressed his concern that Black and Brown attorneys have remained in their “comfort zones” of criminal law or civil rights.

Crump then noted the SOM board serves as examples of lawyers who have stepped outside this comfort zone: Cade with his environmental cases, May with her efforts to sue the NCAA to get black athletes more access to capital, and Zimmerman and Crump taking on the tech industries to demand intellectual property rights.

“It’s always evolving,” Crump said. “Larry [Taylor] and I…we just teach people how to fight. You have to be willing to fight for our people.”

Larry Taylor

Taylor underscored the importance of this issue in financial and human-interest terms. “[Mass tort] cases end up with hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions of dollars, in settlements,” Taylor said, “and the majority of those people look like the people on this screen, but the people representing them do not.

“We bring that human factor that we know because we belong to these communities,” he added.

LaRuby May

May marveled at the opportunity to “sit with giants,” learning from their expertise and knowing they want these attorneys to succeed.

“Tell every Black or Brown lawyer, ‘This is the place you need to be to learn the skillset you need, talking to the people you need to talk to so [you] can bring economic recovery that bridges all the gaps into the community,’” May said.

Gregory Cade

Cade likened SOM to “going to a family reunion and meeting people just like you. “We hope that sensation is carried into this SOM event,” he said.

Diandra “Fu” Debrosse Zimmerman

Besides getting CLE credit for attending the SOM conference, Zimmerman noted that lawyers get nuts and bolts experience from “a broad cross-section of Black and Brown people even outside the private practice world who feel this is really a necessary and important step in our development.”

SOM Will Open Doors and Spark a Revolution

“We’re just as good and talented as any other lawyer out there who’s got a bar license,” Crump said in a final statement of purpose and inspiration, “and we have the right to go into a courtroom and speak truth to power.”

“We have to speak truth to power in every arena possible, and mass torts has been an arena that has tried to close us out. But we’re going to kick in the door, and SOM is going to lead the revolution.”

The mission of this revolution and SOM, Crump said, is to “lead the profession to a better place, lead people of color to a better place, and lead those who don’t have a voice to have a voice at the table.”

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