doug farnsley
Douglass Farnsley

Attorney Douglass Farnsley remembers when Louisville’s schools de-segregated. He was in first grade, and his class went from no African-American children to two.

At that time, Farnsley says, “Integration meant two children were put into an all-white class.” He later learned those two children were the only black students in the entire school.

Experiences like this stuck with Farnsley. Today, the 65-year-old lawyer is president-elect of the Kentucky Bar Association, which oversees the state’s attorneys and seeks to improve and promote the commonwealth’s judicial system. Farnsley wants to make the promotion of diversity and inclusiveness a tent-pole of his presidency, which starts July 1.

A look at KBA demographic data suggests such efforts are desperately needed.

According to the most current data available from the KBA, 93.5 percent of Kentucky’s lawyers are white, and only 2.7 percent are African-American. Meanwhile, the U.S. Census shows the state at large is 88.5 percent white, 8.2 percent black. This is problematic for several reasons, not the least of which is that African-Americans comprise 29 percent of the state’s incarcerated population.

“We have a broad consensus that communities benefit by having police departments that reflect the racial and ethnic populations that they serve. The same principles are at stake in having a more diverse legal profession,” Farnsley said. “Our citizens are almost certainly going to have more confidence in the legal system if the legal profession reflects the citizens of the commonwealth.”

Why is the desire to foster diversity so important to Farnsley? For him it’s an issue of basic fairness, informed by his own comparatively privileged background.

“My father was a lawyer, both of my grandfathers were lawyers. So when I was an undergraduate … trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life, I thought, ‘Gee, maybe I’ll go to law school,'” he says.

But for those with less financial means or no exposure to the legal field as a potential profession, the prospect of law school likely isn’t even on the radar.

Farnsley is a partner at Louisville firm Stites & Harbison, with a focus on civil trial law. His father, Charles Farnsley, was not only an attorney, but also mayor of Louisville from 1948 through 1954, and served in the U.S. House of Representatives. His grandfather, Burrell Farnsley, was a circuit court judge in Louisville.

Amy Cubbage, an attorney with Louisville firm McBrayer McGinnis Leslie & Kirkland, says Farnsley’s push for diversity comes from a real place. “It’s really been amazing to see an older, white male personally understand it (diversity) and push things forward. He comes from a relatively privileged background, and he doesn’t have to have a reason to care other than it is the right thing to do.”

Farnsley has been a KBA board member for eight years, and has been part of efforts by the KBA to help increase the diversity in the legal pool.

One such effort is raising funds through the KBA’s membership dues for the Kentucky Bar Foundation; KBF is the bar association’s charitable arm that uses its funds to promote multiple initiatives, including diversity.

Farnsley helped lead the effort in fiscal year 2014 to increase what the KBF calls “sustainer contributions” from bar association members. The prior sustainer level had been $25, and 4,000 Kentucky attorneys contributed in 2013. For 2014, this amount was raised to $30, and Farnsley led an effort to increase contributions amongst members. These efforts led to sustainer contributions hitting $127,000 in 2014.

About $100,000 goes directly back to the KBF, which financially supports a wide variety of causes.

Of the remaining money, $3,000 has been set aside in the form of $1,000 grants for each of Kentucky’s three law schools, where deans can use the money at their discretion to promote diversity.

Another $20,000 is going into a new fund called the “Diversity Inclusion Fund.”

Farnsley says these funds are being marshaled, with an advisory committee meeting to best determine how to use the money. One way the funds could be used is as a potential backstop for a program called the Kentucky Legal Education Opportunity Scholarship Program. KLEO provides scholarships to law students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds, paying for students to attend two weeks of classes at the University of Kentucky prior to the start of law school.

The Kentucky General Assembly currently funds KLEO, but the Diversity Inclusion Funds would be available in case that funding goes away.

Farnsley also organized the 2015 Diversity & Inclusion Summit, which took place at the Galt House in April. The summit was created for legal professionals, and provided resources and ideas for legal employers to implement their own diversity and inclusion programs. It also sought to assist management and other administrators with handling diversity issues, and emphasized ways to empower attorneys from diverse backgrounds to become successful in the workplace.

Though Farnsley was the driving force behind the summit, he also was educated by it. Especially, he says, by speaker JoAnne Bland, a distinguished attorney who previously served as a special justice on the Kentucky Supreme Court. (A special justice is appointed by the governor to act as a judge on state Supreme Court cases when justices have to recuse themselves.)

Having transitioned from male to female several years ago, Bland is Kentucky’s highest-profile transgender legal professional and a leading activist for transgender-related issues.

When a colleague first recommended including Bland in the summit, Farnsley was reluctant, admittedly because it was an issue he did not fully understand.

However, Farnsley says that within 10 minutes of Bland’s talk, during which she explained the struggles she endured throughout her life as a closeted transgender person, he was in tears. “She just totally opened my eyes to something I didn’t understand at all,” he says. “Here I am planning this thing, saying this wasn’t for me, this is for everyone else … But I just didn’t know. It was ignorance.”

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David Serchuk
David Serchuk is a staff writer at Insider Louisville. He is a former editor at Forbes.com, and an ex-reporter at Forbes magazine. He's written for NPR, CNBC.com, New York, Pittsburgh, Louisville and other publications named for places. He enjoys writing about business, music and other things as well.