It is with this backdrop that I took on the challenge to further broach the subject of diversity by serving in a leadership role with DRI. As a leader on the Diversity Committee, the research and my experiences confirm that:
- we are losing talented, gifted lawyers who find that invisible barriers still exist, and the presumption of incompetence still exist both internally and corporately
- traditional methods of marketing and securing business are far more elusive to the minority lawyer than the non-minority lawyer
- law firm diversity committees are tools for marketing a perspective to prospective clients when internally minority lawyers are isolated
From the outside, the legal profession seems to be growing ever more diverse. Three women are now on the U.S. Supreme Court. Loretta Lynch served as the second African American to hold the position of attorney general. We have many women serving in the U.S. Presidential cabinet. Yet, according to Bureau of Labor statistics, law is one of the least racially diverse professions in the nation. Eighty-eight percent of lawyers are white. Other careers do better — 81 percent of architects and engineers are white; 78 percent of accountants are white; and 72 percent of physicians and surgeons are white. The legal profession supplies presidents; governors; lawmakers; judges; prosecutors; general counsels; and heads of corporate, government, nonprofit, and legal organizations. Its membership needs to be as inclusive as the populations it serves.
Still, the profession needs diversity champions, who are people dedicated to supporting an inclusive profession, company, firm community to turn talk into action. As many like to say, diversity champions are folks who want to “walk the talk.”
Arguably, the challenge is that there is a lack of consensus that there is a significant problem in the legal profession. Many believe that barriers no longer exist; LGBTIQ, women, and minorities have moved up; and any lingering inequality is a function of different capabilities, commitment, and choices. However, the evidence seems to suggest otherwise.
It is important to recognize that being a good person and being averse to diversity and inclusion are deemed mutually exclusive, though this interpretation does little to provide the nuanced perspectives that develop multicultural literary. Consider this: We spend approximately one-third of our lives at work. This means we spend about the same amount of time with our colleagues talking, sharing, collaborating, and producing results. But do we take the time to get to know the people around us who seem vastly different than we are?
I offer these texts that provide the opportunity to broaden your understanding of diversity and inclusion, and how to tackle the “taboo” of talking about race, privilege, and otherness. “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” by James Loewen; “How to be an Antiracist,” by Ibram X. Kendi; “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” By Beverly Daniel Tatum; Debby Irving’s “Waking Up White”; and “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” by Robin DiAngelo.
Studies show that while women constitute more than one-third of the profession, however, women comprise only about one-fifth of law firm partners, general counsels of Fortune 500 corporations, and law school deans. The situation is bleakest at the highest levels. Women account for only 17 percent of equity partners, and only seven of the nation’s 100 largest firms have a woman as chairman or managing partner. Women are less likely to make partner even controlling other factors, including law school grades and time spent out of the workforce or on part-time schedules. Studies find that men are two to five times more likely to make partner than women.
Further, although minorities now constitute about a third of the population and a fifth of law school graduates, they make up fewer than 7 percent of law firm partners and 9 percent of general counsels of large corporations. In major law firms, only 3 percent of associates and less than 2 percent of partners are African Americans. The questions to ask yourself is why is this still the case and what will we do to change the course?
Importantly, despite these circumstances, and through leadership roles, I have had the opportunity to meet corporate counsel, some minority and non-minority counsel, who understand the dangerous impact of lip service to diversity and the inappropriate presumption of incompetence with no objective proof. These corporate counsels are the trailblazers of the day, as they understand that the power of their purse can effect change, even for a small law firm owner, who happens to be a person of color and a woman.
Recently, I had the unique opportunity to join a DRI Social Justice panel with Charles L. Norton, Jr, the General Counsel and Corporate Secretary of The Coca Cola Bottlers Association. In true Champion fashion, Norton wholeheartedly believes the legal profession is on the brink of change for the better. Norton candidly shared his hopes for the future and addressed diversity and inclusion inquiries head-on during the DRI Town Hall panel on the state of social justice in America and the role of lawyers and corporations. In fact, Coca-Cola now requires diversity accountability among its U.S. law firms who bill its work. Going forward, Coca Cola will change the trajectory by measuring diversity and inclusion efforts within its law firm panel counsel.
Companies big and small decided to recognize Juneteenth, a holiday that commemorates the end of slavery, after the killing of George Floyd set off an urgent national conversation about race. Companies and law firms are usually quiet at moments of public upheaval and hesitant to take a political stand for fear of alienating customers. But since Mr. Floyd’s killing, businesses of all kinds have expressed their solidarity with protesters, donated millions of dollars to organizations dedicated to racial justice, or vowed to change their office cultures to be more inclusive. Many have also announced intentions to make concrete changes inside their own institutions or in how they do business.
“When the dust settles and the pages of history are written, it will not be the angry defenders of intolerance who have made the difference. The reward will go to those who dared to step outside the safety of their privacy in order to expose and rout the prevailing prejudices.” - Bishop John Shelby Spong
With a renewed focus following George Floyd’s death, I sincerely hope that other corporations and law firm managers will model Coca Cola’s measures going forward. This is an opportunity to take real action so that that minority lawyers’ value would be appreciated wholly rather than on the surface and that the need for diversity initiatives, committees, studies, and summits would be eliminated. While trailblazers in the DRI, NBA, and ABA have been educating the legal community about the value of diversity in a diverse multicultural world, law firms and Corporate America do not always reflect an acceptance of that value in its selection of counsel. There are many national law firms, panel counsel for corporations, and corporate boards that still do not have minority lawyers serving at the highest levels of their businesses.
As the world moves to a more global economy, the importance of diversity in thought, color, communication, style, and performance will have greater value. I am hopeful that we will reach a profession that accepts people for their unique value. I challenge you to trust that minority lawyer who has proven she is capable. I believe that one of the reasons people fear diversity is because they are accustomed to the way things used to be and change makes them uncomfortable. Still, others feel threatened because they perceive increased participation by traditionally underrepresented groups as a challenge to their own power.
To the extent you think promoting a diverse or LGBT lawyer to law firm leadership or hiring a minority is a risk or threat, I challenge you to examine the root of your beliefs. If you do not understand another’s values, lifestyle, or beliefs, it is much easier to belittle and devalue them. And so, the seeds of prejudice and intolerance are sown. Building a diverse organization does not mean having a few ethnic or other minorities in the office. It also does not mean a group comprised only of minorities. It means having people of diverse culture, experience, and background in all levels of a law firm. True diversity and inclusion champions require more than just checking off the requisite boxes on a checklist or survey. They require more than talk. They require action from the leadership to its workforce. My recommendation to corporations and law firm managers is to take steps today to change the trajectory of the country, community, and your organization by doing the following:
- Communicate diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies and policies to employees and spell out what actions the organization is taking.
- Give leaders and employees the skills and tools to help create a more inclusive workplace and address discrimination.
- Give managers guidance and training on how to move forward in supporting diversity and inclusion within your organization.
- Create dedicated spaces for people to talk about social injustice and inequality at work.
- Respond to the call to explicitly state your company or firm’s stance on inequality and give regular updates on how you are following through on your commitments beyond “lip service.”
- Schedule a firm leadership meeting with a diversity consultation and an agenda structured to tackle the “Taboo” of talking about diversity and inclusion issues within your organization and the plan of action with consistent measuring and accountability measures going forward.
- Become an ally. Allies play the important role of magnifying the voices of marginalized groups. Because of the inherent privileges that come with being in the majority (more access to leadership, less fear of discrimination or retribution, sheer volume of voices), allies have the unique ability to make the needs of the marginalized more visible to the eyes (and ears) of important decision-makers. Be visible and open about your allyship. Support cannot live in the dark or in comfort zones.
- Have an honest conversation with your leadership about the state of your organization on issues of equality, advancement, opportunity, and inclusion.
- Educate yourself and learn about your implicit biases and acknowledge them. Whether due to nature or nurture, we all have implicit and subconscious biases that we carry around daily. However, awareness of our own biases allows us to check ourselves and make sure that we are not acting on these biases and carrying out behaviors solely because they align with a certain bias.
- Do more than stress diversity and inclusion on your website. Expand your firm’s management culture, build a support structure and revamp recruiting efforts and opportunities to diverse law schools and communities.
- Provide opportunities for diverse attorneys to become a part of key legal teams and provide diverse lawyers with leadership training and case assignments on primary firm matters.
Champions of inclusion are fundamental to change mindsets. They are people who ensure that everyone has an opportunity to engage, and they exemplify first and foremost that they can connect, communicate, challenge, and collaborate appropriately. Indeed, what makes champions of inclusion extraordinary is that they demonstrate on a regular basis how ordinary it can be to support and promote an inclusive culture at all levels. Finally, diversity and inclusion will continue to be a cultural touchstone worthy of true allies and champions. The path to positive transformation for the profession doesn’t begin with nice gestures, but begins with foundational work, commitment, and a plan to execute the visions of true champions of inclusion – something that the legal profession and the world so desperately need.
Pamela W. Carter is the founder of Carter Law Group LLC in New Orleans, where she concentrates her practice on a wide variety of civil litigation ranging from insurance coverage, personal injury, and transportation law, to toxic tort, defective product, and general litigation matters. She is nationally recognized for her publications and presentations on issues of diversity in the legal profession.