On March 14, Portland State’s director of Student Legal Services, Lissa Kaufman, will receive the annual Judge Mercedes Deiz award for promoting diversity in the legal community through her work at PSU and the Multnomah Bar Association.
The award, named after the first African-American woman to be admitted to the state bar in Oregon, aims to “recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of individuals in promoting women and minorities in the legal profession and community in Oregon,” according to its website.
“We at PSU, the first question we ask is, ‘why is it important for the [legal profession] to be diverse?’ Our students do a way better job of answering that than any lawyer I have ever met,” Kaufman said.
Kaufman, who is the award’s 11th recipient, also works with the MBA’s diversity department, which encourages minority students at PSU to pursue careers in law. Kaufman says that these efforts help the students grow roots in the community and have a reason to stay.
At PSU, a program called “Explore the Law” aims to help students, both in going to law school as well as pursuing a career afterward.
The program has ties with the MBA and the Oregon State Bar, and helps introduce students to these communities. Through this partnership, Kaufman says students get a better idea of the life and duties of a lawyer while getting help with networking.
Kaufman’s own work history had a strong influence on how she views the importance of increasing diversity in legal professions. She worked on immigration cases before becoming a public defender, and before her involvement in law, she worked at a food bank. In each of these environments, she said, inequality—racial inequality in particular—become plainly obvious.
“When I came here to PSU, it’s kind of a magical place in Oregon because you see people propelling themselves forward,” Kaufman said. “The university encourages that kind of work. I’ve had an amazing resource in the students that are here to do this.”
In a city like Hillsboro, the people staffing a courtroom do not adequately represent the population, Kaufman said. As a result, the MBA’s efforts to promote careers in law begin as early as elementary school.
“We want to expose people to lawyers that look like them,” Kaufman said.
Even outside of PSU and the MBA’s active attempts at creating a diverse law community, many of the students who fill law internships at PSU have been from minority backgrounds.
Named for the first African-American woman to be admitted to the state bar, in 1960, the Deiz award was created by the Oregon Women Lawyers, an organization that aims to “transform the practice of law and ensure justice and equality by advancing minorities in the legal profession,” according to its website.
Deiz herself became a district court judge in 1969. In 1972, she was elected to the Multnomah County Circuit Court, the first African-American woman to fill that office. In 1993, Deiz became the first recipient of the award that is named after her.
“It means a lot to see that people are recognizing my work doing this,” Kaufman said. “I can’t say anything else, I was filled with pride.”