Brad Smith: Hispanic National Bar Association Annual Convention

BRAD SMITH: I want to say what a pleasure it is to be here, to be in such an august group, and what a thrill it is for all of us at Microsoft to help host you and the HNBA this August in Seattle. (Applause.)

As I met a number of you who have been here this week, I know many of you have come from the East Coast, and one of the things you’ve found, if you hadn’t realized it before, is that it takes a long time to get to Seattle. (Laughter.)

And I actually wanted to start by sharing a story, a story of the first recorded trip of people who came from the East Coast over land to what would become Washington state, because I actually think it speaks to why we are here tonight.

The trip was over two centuries ago. It was led by Lewis and Clark. And from the moment that they left Washington, D.C., they knew that perhaps the most climactic moment of their journey would come as they got to the Rocky Mountains, and would turn on whether they could meet with and persuade members of the Shoshone tribe, who lived in the mountains, to show them the pass through the Rockies and provide them the horses they would need to make it through.

And for this reason the expedition had with them a young woman, a Shoshone herself, a woman who at the age of 12 had been kidnapped by another tribe and had been separated and had found herself hundreds of miles away before meeting Lewis and Clark. Her name, as you may know, was Sacagawea.

And as the group reached the Rocky Mountains, there came a morning, a morning this very week in August, a beautiful sunny day just like today, when the group went down a river, little knowing that before the sun set that day they would experience what probably to this day remains the greatest coincidence in American history.

Because the group encountered the Shoshones and they sat down and started to talk, and, of course, there was suspicion all around. Sacagawea was the only one who could speak the Shoshone language. And as she listened to the leader of the Shoshone tribe speak, slowly a realization came over her face. She realized that not only did she know this man who was the leader of the tribe, but she had been separated from him years ago, because quite literally he was her brother.

And as this brother and sister, these two siblings were reunited, the suspicion was broken through in an instant, and in that moment this group of mostly white men realized something: They realized that diversity was their strength. (Applause.) They learned that their success turned on the presence of a woman of a different color, who spoke a different language, and who understood customs that they could not possibly understand. And as a result, their expedition became a success.

I repeat that story because I think it provides a metaphor and a message for us and our day. As I travel the world each year, as I meet with lawyers and government officials and others in other places, one thing is abundantly clear: The world has changed. The world has gotten smaller. It has become more competitive. Other countries and continents are prospering as they have never prospered before.

Back here in the United States as one meets people, one frequently finds that people have questions as a result. They ask, what does this mean for us, how are we going to succeed, how are we going to create new jobs in this country, how are we going to keep the jobs that we have, how are we going to ensure that our children get the education and skills that they will need in order to flourish in their future?

I think that the answers to these questions start by recognizing one fundamental fact: Fewer than 5 percent of the people in the world live in the United States. But we have an advantage as a country that no other country can match, because more so than any other country, we have a population that reflects the population of the 95 percent of the people who live in the rest of the world. Diversity is our strength. (Applause.)

It gives us the opportunity to pioneer the inventions that the world needs, to create the products that the world wants, to offer the services that the world requires. Indeed, we can do all of these things if we recognize that diversity is our strength and we nurture it so that it can become an even greater strength in the years ahead.

This is something that I get to experience every day in my job at Microsoft. Not only do we have over 150 nationalities represented on our campus here in Washington state, but I have the great pleasure of leading what is probably one of the most diverse legal teams in the world. We have lawyers that come from 55 countries. They work in 51 countries. They speak 40 different languages.

Each time when I have the opportunity to sit down and meet with and talk with a team that’s working on a set of issues, one of the first things I do is look around the room, and I ask myself, is there a good balance of men and women on this team, are there different races, are there different languages, are there different ethnicities, are there different nationalities represented in this team? Is this a team that not only reflects diversity but makes the most of the benefits it provides? Have they found ways to hear different views, to create different ideas, to listen to people who have different styles? If it is, then I have learned over the years that it is a team that is likely to succeed.

And just as diversity is an asset for a company and for a law firm, it is a competitive advantage for our country, if only we will recognize that this is such an important part of our future.

The other thing I’ve learned is that in a diverse community you have to also have some common values to hold everyone together. When it comes to American society, I think our common values are these: We share a commitment to democratic principles and the freedom of expression enshrined in the Constitution, a healthy respect for the differing views of others, and we appreciate the fundamental importance of the rule and the role of law.

But when you think about all of these things, they all rest, they all rely on the existence of a vibrant and healthy legal profession. We need to be a vibrant and healthy profession if we’re going to serve the diverse country that this has become, and the diverse opportunities that the country has in front of it.

If we’re going to do that well, I believe we need to do two things. First, we need to build a more diverse legal profession. (Applause.) We need to start by recognizing that we have a steep hill to climb. As you all know better than me, only 4 percent, less than 4 percent of the lawyers in this country are Latino. If you look at the nation’s law schools, only 6 percent of our law students are Latino. We are not only less diverse than the country, today, the legal profession is less diverse than the medical profession, it is less diverse than the nation’s engineers, it is less diverse than the nation’s accountants, it is less diverse than the nation’s managers and other professionals. There is only one profession that is less diverse than ours, and that’s dentistry. I don’t know why, but I think we need to be looking up not down — (laughter) — if we’re going to figure out how to succeed. (Applause.)

We need to do even more to build more diverse legal departments, to build more diverse law firms, and perhaps as much or more than anything else we need to build more diverse law schools. And one of the things we’re going to need to do is persuade the nation’s law schools to spend less time focusing closely on their rankings in U.S. news and spend more time focusing closely on the needs of the U.S. population. (Applause.)

But I also know this: It’s not enough simply to build a more diverse legal profession. We need to foster a more generous profession as well. Because as we all know, the doors of our courtrooms are open to all-comers. But as we also recognize, your chance of success is a whole lot higher if you’re represented by a lawyer.

We have a legal system that rests on the generosity of lawyers, and I really believe that one of the great attributes of the American legal profession is our generosity and our commitment to pro bono work, but we have even more to do if we’re going to create the kinds of access to justice that a more diverse population will require.

As I’ve had the chance as the chair of Kids in Need of Defense and with other organizations to see firsthand, the pro bono involvement of a lawyer can make all the difference in the world.

I’ve met people who have stories that deserve to be heard, they are stories that deserve to be told, but they are stories that will be heard only if people can get a lawyer.

And when I’ve worked with people who have done pro bono work, time and time again I’ve been so struck by the positive impact that pro bono work has. Certainly for the immigrant children who have been separated from their families that we serve through KIND I’ve seen lawyers transform a life, I’ve seen lawyers save a life.

I’ve had the chance to meet a number of kids who have been our clients over the years, and to this day one that stands out is a girl I met in 2009. Her name is Norma. She had fled from Honduras. She had fled from a life of unspeakable violence. And yet as she found herself in northern Mexico approaching the U.S. border she was captured and exploited and subjected to even worse violence still.

She ultimately made it across the border, and she found a lawyer, a volunteer working for KIND, and I had the chance to meet with her while her case was pending in Los Angeles. Happily, it had a happy ending: She gained asylum in the United States.

Each January at Microsoft we celebrate Martin Luther King Day by having a program that our employees can attend, and this January we invited and paid for Norma to come up from Los Angeles. It was her first airplane flight, it was definitely her first experience in a snowstorm — (laughter) — it was the first time that she spoke to a room filled with hundreds of people, and when she was finished, I had the opportunity to join her onstage and present her with her first computer. It was a great conclusion to such a happy relationship.

And yet over the years, I have so often found myself recalling part of the conversation I had with Norma in 2009 in Los Angeles as she was telling me her story. I asked her, how did you ever summon the courage to leave Honduras and go to the United States in the first place? She looked at me, she smiled, she laughed, and then she said, “Well, to tell you the truth, when I left I had no idea the United States was so far away.” (Laughter.)

And as I’ve thought about that comment over the years, I’ve appreciated not only the candor but I’ve appreciated that in a very important way Norma is a bit like all of us, because whenever you set out on a great destination you don’t really know how far away it is, you don’t know whether the shortest distance between two points will be a straight line or whether you’re going to face twists and turns in the road ahead. You don’t know how many days there will be when you’ll have to take one step back in order to take two steps forward.

But I do know this: We have the opportunity to do something great, and no matter how long the road ahead may be, it is the path worth traveling.

And as I look to the future, I believe that you in this room have the opportunity to do something special, because you are a vital part of this nation’s voice for the future. But you’re even more than that. You have the opportunity to use not only your voice but your time, your volunteerism. You have the opportunity to help not only other people in the Hispanic community but to serve as a role model for many other people as well. Working together we all have the opportunity not only to foster a more diverse country but to build a stronger nation.

Thank you very much. (Applause.)