Adine Momoh, a business litigator at Stinson Leonard Street, is the daughter of immigrants from Sierra Leone.

Next month, she takes over for one year as president of the Hennepin County Bar Association (HCBA), becoming the first minority woman to lead the 100-year-old organization. At 34, she’s also the youngest president the group has had.

“Thank you for teaching me the importance of having a strong work ethic, the importance of education, the importance of remaining humble and the importance of giving back,” she said in remarks recently at the Hennepin bar’s annual meeting.

She was directing her comments to her parents, Kofi and Mabel Momoh.

Momoh is also grateful for her numerous professional mentors, and said in a recent interview that she’s concerned the legal profession has become too much about billable hours and making a buck and too little about professionalism and service.

“I would like us at HCBA to be a champion of the profession and we’re going to need to focus on diverse attorneys, new attorneys and those who have been practicing [for less than 15 years],” Momoh said.

It is this group of younger lawyers, disproportionately women and people of color, who leave law firms because of the grind.

Momoh, who was hired by several powerful mentors at Leonard Street after clerking for a federal judge, said those senior men and women helped her network, generate business, take time for pro bono and community work, and “help me understand the practice of law.”

Momoh hopes to advance the cause of diversity, because the number of minorities at Twin Cities law firms is less than their proportional representation in the population. She plans to bolster the effort by starting conversations over dinners she plans with young lawyers and senior bar members.

“One of the best ways to meet people is to have a conversation,” she said. “A table for 10. It’s said that diversity is asking someone to the dance. Inclusion is asking that person to dance. I don’t know that the dinners will work, but it’s time for something new.”

Sounds like a good idea.

“We must do more to foster an inclusive legal community than simply offer Minnesota Nice smiles,” she said. “Accordingly, we are going to increase our collaboration with the affinity bars and minority bars and organizations that are dedicated to retaining and advancing diverse attorneys.

Momoh, who made partner at Leonard Street in 2017, is not just about diversity.

She wants to see each of the bar’s 8,000-plus members “champion” the profession.

“We find ourselves in a moment in time when we are hearing and seeing such negative, divisive discourse and attorneys are being asked to step up and to do more, oftentimes with less, to help the oppressed, the underserved and the underrepresented,” she told bar members. “Attorneys are needed now more than ever.

“The ABA Journal reports that since the 2016 presidential election, the number of LSAT takers and law school applications has jumped significantly, leading many to conclude that the Trump bump is real. The legal community will need to help these new attorneys once they enter the profession and to make sure that their energy and passion is properly channeled.”

Essentially, Momoh is asking bar members, starting with those who run firms and corporate law departments, to reinvest in the profession with a little time and money.

That’s easier said then done, as corporate clients expect more for less from law firms, and as big firms consolidate to drive efficiency and profitability.

Those trends aren’t going away.

But the law should not just be about making the last buck for the firm and landing a lucrative partnership.

“I look forward to the day when the number of diverse attorneys making partner will no longer be sparse compared to that of our white colleagues,” Momoh said in her remarks. “I look forward to the day when the process of succeeding as an attorney is more transparent, and less about whether someone has the rules to a game that only a select few are allowed to know when they play.

“The day will come, and the association is already doing some of this work. We have to be more intentional. We are going to increase our focus on new lawyers, diverse attorneys, and attorneys in the 7-15 year gap. We are asking them and each of you to not just join the association and to support our mission. But also please lean in and engage. Get active, speak on panels, write articles to be published, and apply for leadership positions so that you can maximize your return-on-investment.”

She gave everyone in attendance at the annual meeting a bell.

A former high school track star and choir singer, she sees the bell as something to call attention to significant times and events.

She wants the bell to be a reminder.

“I want you to remember that the Hennepin County Bar Association is a champion of the profession. And I want each of us to commit to being a champion of someone else in the community. Can we do this?”

Everybody rang their bell in acknowledgment.

“As the late Sen. Paul Wellstone said, “We all do better, when we all do better,’” Momoh recalled. “I am hopeful that our tomorrow and the next 100 years will be much better than our today.”

 

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.