February 18, 2022
As Harris Shelton celebrates Black History Month, we are also reflecting upon the firm’s year-round efforts and conversations to create more diverse, inclusive and affirming spaces, for clients as well as our staff.
This commitment is woven tightly into our history. Our founder, the philanthropist and community visionary Walter Chandler, represented the plaintiffs in the landmark Supreme Court decision in Baker v. Carr, the ruling that opened the court to individuals seeking equal representation.
But such a legacy, and current progress on diversity and inclusion (D&I) in legal spaces, is only built by openly and continually questioning where we are and what we can do to reach higher ground. This is no matter how frank or uncomfortable those questions can be.
Where does the legal industry stand on leading the way?
In so many ways, the law is ripe to lead diversity and inclusion efforts across the corporate world. Our focus on seeking justice, inclusion and optimal outcomes for our clients means the same goals make sense within our own walls. But throughout the legal system as a whole, moving beyond words and hopes, into actions and outcomes, remains a work in progress.
Statistical evidence and lived experiences both suggest that things have tangibly improved in law over the past several decades. But if measures like the Bloomberg DEI Framework, measuring diversity, equity and inclusion, are any guide, we still have some way to go. Assessing characteristics like a firm’s demographics, recruitment and retention of professionals from diverse groups and backgrounds, and diversity in firm leadership and talents, Bloomberg’s researchers encountered several unacceptable findings.
Firms did relatively well, in Bloomberg’s estimation, on measures like diversity and inclusion strategies in firm policies and recruiting and retaining lawyers from minority backgrounds. But they performed poorly on leadership diversity, including the number of partners to CEOs that are women or from ethnic minority backgrounds.
In addition, a 2019 report from the National Association for Law Placement found that women only comprised 35% of attorneys at some of the country’s major law firms. About 16% came from racial or ethnic minority backgrounds, and 8% were women from racial or ethnic minority backgrounds. That number keeps climbing, up from when an era not so long ago when women were not permitted to attend law school, or were the exception in an all-male classroom.
Benefits of diversity and inclusion in the law
Diversity and inclusion should not simply be a slogan for the legal world.
In law, drawing from diverse backgrounds and unique perspectives is essential to the very success of a firm. Benefits include more competitive performance, more authentic and meaningful client relationships, and a greater external and community credibility and reputation for the firm.
Simply put, it’s important for clients to see themselves reflected back in our firm. It is crucial for the future of the sector that women, ethnic and racial minorities, LGBTQ people and others see pathways to internships, clerkships, and partnerships for themselves and their peers.
When we represent clients in court, discuss cases, or even contemplating the very growth of our firm among each other, firms need to be able to speak authentically about lived experiences impacting systemically disadvantaged groups. Only then do our roles as advocates become stronger.
What role does bias play in holding back diversity and inclusion in the legal world?
In short, plenty. Bias is highly complex and includes both innate or learned preconceptions and prejudices (implicit bias). We cannot often consciously identify bias without aid. The ability to consciously self-reflect on bias, and working in a company culture that encourages us to look authentically at our biases and challenge them, is essential to seeing and overcoming implicit bias for each of us.
Preconceived notions, as lawyers, can lead us to make assumptions about adversaries and even clients that we shouldn’t. In human resources, they may lead us to question or pass over a perfectly qualified candidate, because of reservations we have that are based on our own implicit bias.
We all have biases. It is not something that makes us bad or good as people, or even necessarily bad at what we do. But bias can hinder our performance, and that of the firm, if left unchecked.
Where is the solution? To start, maximizing training on emotional intelligence and implicit bias, which enables attorneys and staff to look at their biases as objectively as possible. Someone who is not aware of their own emotions, for example, may not even see that there is a problem in how they look at certain situations.
It is also essential to take a clear-eyed look at the data to see how legal teams can be diversified. Each firm will be able to use their own data as the basis of a strategy for wider recruitment and retention of people of color, women of color, LGBTQ individuals, and others who remain underrepresented in the law but whose contributions to the firm’s work will be invaluable.
Moreover, it’s essential for firms to consider whether or not the hiring processes, too, reflect biases.
Being better listeners
Legal professionals need no introduction to how hectic and fast paced this practice is. But listening is not a question of time. It is instead one of effort.
Both active and reflective listening are essential for diversity and inclusion. Active listening means that we engage ourselves fully and non-judgmentally with the perspectives and viewpoints we hear. Reflective listening allows us to process, often out loud, what others are saying by putting them in our own words, again without embellishing or misrepresenting what they say.
Though these are crucial skills to have in conversation, we can take them further. This includes actively surveying different perspectives among minority groups who work at the firm. It also means gauging feedback on the hiring process, both among current members of the firm and interviewees – whether or not they advanced to the next stage.
Listening, also, does not mean passively hearing or collecting information and opinions, and then doing nothing with them – especially when problems are identified.
What to do with what we learn – where do we go from here?
Encouraging the creation of groups and organizations within the firm that advocate for the interests of minority or underrepresented professionals can help ensure that the perspectives heard are channeled into action, and that accountability is always present in ensuring that goals are consistently met. Not just in February, but all year old.
Inclusiveness is, in part, a mindset. But it is also a set of behaviors and intentional actions, which everyone must participate in in some way.
Our commitment at Harris Shelton is to absorb, listen and do – this month and always.