Diversity in the legal profession is not a given … yet

DiversityAt InsideCounsel’s SuperConference two weeks ago, I had the privilege of moderating a best practices panel on the topic of diversity.

The panelists were terrific, especially since I threw out a curve ball we did not prepare for in advance. During a lunch earlier at the conference, I was struck by the comment of a white male attendee. I was in recruitment mode, encouraging folks to attend our session versus other concurrent session options. This is a good guy, and he gave me the gift of candor by saying that “diversity is a given” where he works, so he’s not sure there’s much left to be said on the topic.

It’s a notion I’m sensitive to as a white male recruiter who hears this theme often from other white males—a view that we are “post racial,” at least among the professional ranks in corporate America. So I asked our panelists to essentially remind our audience and readers that, unfortunately, discriminatory bias and behaviors still exist that can get in the way of equal opportunity for non-white employees within a company. I said we need to step back for a moment and revisit the importance of diversity initiatives.

Maria Green (Illinois Tool Works), David Rawlinson (Grainger), and Martin Montes (Exelon) did a stellar job of doing that and much more. The advice they offered during the panel discussion was specific in terms of action steps their companies take, both internally and with respect to outside service providers. But the most engaging moments of the session came during the Q&A.

There was, for example, a lively discussion between an audience member and the panel about tracking outside counsel matter time spent by minority attorneys within majority-owned law firms. This helped us get to an unseen bias issue. Maria noted a study in which two third year associates wrote briefs on the same legal issue. One group of law firm partners reviewed the briefs without knowing the authors. Another group read the briefs knowing which author is African-American, and which one is white. The partners who reviewed the briefs blind preferred the one authored by the African-American associate, whereas the opposite result occurred in the nonblind review.

It led me to ask an uncomfortable question: Should non-white inside counsel receive any kind of “special treatment” once hired to make sure they get a clear path to success within a company? The answer: a clear “no.” I touched a nerve that does not get expressed in public very often, but something I have of course understood for years. No minority attorney wants or needs “special treatment” of any kind. Nor does anyone want the inaccurate perception that their success is in any way based on anything other than their talents and hard work.

But David, after delivering an emphatic “no,” also got to the message I was hoping he would send out. That is, leaders and managers should be sensitive to spotting subtle barriers at their companies. And as a leader at his company, David will take on the responsibility of knocking down a barrier if he spots one.

Glass half full: It’s terrific that my lunch companion said “diversity is a given” at his company; expressing that mind-set tells me that we are another step closer to reaching the goal of total inclusion.

But we all know that bias, sometimes subtle and often unintended, remains to be conquered before we can applaud ourselves for becoming a “post racial” corporate America. If we accomplished nothing more than reminding our attendees of this fact, then I deem our session a success.

We did accomplish more, though. So, I choose to end this column with two calls to action. The first is inspired by some of Martin’s work in building the talent pipeline. In our Chicago area alone, Martin supports several organizations designed to give kids from underprivileged neighborhoods access to scholarships. These include Legal Prep Academy, Youth Service Project, and United Latinos for Education Empowerment and Development. Find one organization in your community that helps create equal opportunity at the grass roots level and support it.

I believe we continue to head in the right direction and that, in time, the quote “diversity is a given” will become true. I don’t think we are there yet. Leaders like Maria, David and Martin can help set the right tone at the top. But all of us share the responsibility of addressing subtle bias when we encounter it. So my second call to action is harder, and it’s one that I’m addressing mainly to white males like me. When you do encounter that comment or action that you know in your bones is a marker of bias, don’t ignore it. Summon the courage to engage in an uncomfortable conversation and don’t let the bias stand.

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