The Black Women Lawyers Association of Greater Chicago posed this question as the theme of its Spring Fundraiser Luncheon on Thursday April 17, 2014 at the Hyatt Regency Chicago. Numerous Black women lawyers were filmed answering this question. The conclusion was that black women lawyers are everywhere. I submit, however, that while we are everywhere – hyper visible – we are nevertheless disappearing. There are some Black women lawyers who have achieved tremendous success or who are on their way to such success, and we see those women everywhere. They are on marketing materials, receiving awards, in legal publications, and speaking to audiences big and small. As they should be. Hard work demands and deserves rewards. Amazing people should be seen and heard; they are indeed exemplary.
While there are some hyper-visible Black women lawyers, giving the illusion of a diverse legal profession and a robust population of Black women lawyers in Chicago’s legal profession, the hard truth is that our numbers are not so striking, and indeed, are shrinking. We are being lost somewhere between law school first year orientation and admission into partnership at law firms.
Our numbers are already low in the Associate ranks in Chicago area law firms, representing only 2.44% of law firm associates. Just five years ago, however, Black women lawyers were 2.84% of associates and we were 0.67% of partners in Chicago. These numbers are peculiar because it shows that (1) in the midst of the Great Recession, we lost half a percentage point of young Black women lawyers, and (2) gained less than one-tenth of a percentage point of partners where, as of December 2013, Black women are 0.78% of partners. Therefore, Black women’s advancement to partnership was outpaced by our disappearance from law firms in the early stages of our careers. In short, although BWLA’s luncheon packed the room with lawyers, most of whom were Black women, in truth, Black women lawyers are actually few and far between.
The panelists for BWLA’s luncheon included Rick Palmore, General Counsel of General Mills and author of the Call to Action; Michele Coleman Mayes, General Counsel of the New York Public Library System (and formerly the General Counsel of Allstate); James Leipold, Executive Director of The National Association for Law Placement (NALP); and Teresa Sebastian General Counsel of Darden Restaurants (better known as Olive Garden and Red Lobster). I appreciated hearing their comments, which ranged from optimistic and encouraged about the state of diversity and inclusion for Black women lawyers in the legal profession, to dissatisfied with the numbers.
James Leipold pointed out that while Black women lawyers are everywhere, our numbers are actually discouraging. Black women lawyers are not even 1% of the partnership in Chicago. I cannot say that I was surprised but such a minuscule number. I have often contemplated why diversity and inclusion is so stagnated despite always hearing the words “diversity and inclusion.” Indeed, the words are hyper visible, just like black women lawyers, and yet, my experience and research is showing me that the words do not really hold weight. They seem to have become buzz words. Words to throw in when you’re trying to attract talent and business, words to toss around when you want to seem progressive and in-the-know, but words that are not really being taken seriously by the people who hold the purse strings.
“Diversity and Inclusion” needs to be reinvigorated, especially in the legal profession. As Leipold pointed out during the discussion at the luncheon, the phrase lost a great deal of its sway and momentum when the economy tanked and folks started losing jobs. Suddenly, Black women lawyers, and other diverse lawyers, were not as valued. We lost our jobs first, and in one swift motion, our pipeline to partnership disintegrated.
This drastic, and expected, turn of events has led me to conceptualize how the legal profession can actually speak truth to power when it utters the words “diversity and inclusion.”
First, we need bold thought leaders. For diversity and inclusion to actually thrive, people and organizations, especially those with money and power must conceive of and/or champion ideas that are not the same old visions for diversity and inclusion. As Sandra Yamate of the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession one of the boldest and most creative thought leadership organizations I know) states, diversity is about being invited to the dance while inclusion is about being asked to dance. What’s the point of going to the dance if all the cool kids are going to stand in a circle with their backs to you, drinks in hand, laughter erupting, and business secrets being shared?
I (we) want to join the circle. Yes, we can push and shove our way into the circle, and yes, we can also make our own circle at the party. But, the essence of inclusion is that there is a single circle and everyone has elbow room to dance a two-step, chuckle a bit, and toss back a few. We need folks with money and power, folks with influence, and folks with access to speak up to their counterparts and to then invite others into the circle, and to dance.
We need to rethink our definitions of success as lawyers. Time and again I hear “success” in the legal profession being equated to achieving law firm partnership. Becoming a partner is a great achievement, and if you achieve that goal, I proudly celebrate your success and welcome any advice and encouragement you can provide to those coming behind you. Partnership not only represents increased potential for financial security, but it also represents greater influence and access. However, law firm partnership is not the exclusive route to money, power, influence, and access. Every law school graduate and lawyer cannot and should not pursue careers in private practice. Homogeneity is not desirable in any other area of life and society, so why should the legal profession be any different?
Our careers are canvases and we can create whatever artwork we desire. Everyone’s “lawyer” picture does not have to look the same. If we diversify our definitions of what it means to be a successful lawyer, then our numbers as lawyers will inevitably increase because we will define where and how we show up. Let’s consider law professors. I had two Black women law professors whose mere presence encouraged me in the pursuit of law degree and career. It meant a great deal to me that they helped teach and mold me in law school, and I have told them just that. Seeing and learning from these women, and attempting to model myself after their character and integrity as lawyers, mentors, and professors, led to my desire to teach, mentor, and to be a great lawyer.
We don’t always teach students that acceptable, desirable, and coveted careers exist outside of law firms, and that needs to change. Imagine what would happen if we diversified academia, the judiciary, the executive branch (including the Justice Department), administrative agencies (including the areas of immigration, equal employment opportunity and environmentalism), the legislature, and research institutions. Diverse lawyers need to be in those places too, perhaps more than in private practice. The lawyer “success” dialogue needs to diversify, just as much as the tired discussion of diversity and inclusion.
We need to hold every lawyer and potential lawyer, and every organization accountable. Everyone, including ourselves. From law students to managing parters. From law clerks to the U.S. Attorney. From the 5 person law firm to the firm with offices in 15 countries. I have heard and read many perspectives on how to achieve diversity and inclusion. I have nodded along and internally said my fair share of “um hmm, that’s right,” and I have had many quizzical looks when I hear an idea or statement that is simply unrealistic. I hear a lot of conversations that teeter on greatness. What resonates the most with me, however, is what I don’t hear. I have found that lawyers and organizations usually will not take the step necessary to really have the lesson of diversity and inclusion sink in, and it is this timidity that makes the diversity and inclusion effort, movement, what have you, seem disingenuous.
Corporations and General Counsels, if you truly value diversity and inclusion, then it is not enough for you to attend meetings with lawyers and tell them you want diverse attorneys working on your matter.
Partners and members: do not, for the love of all that beautiful, I implore you, do not TOKENIZE during requests for proposals (RFPs). The diverse attorneys know what you are doing and we don’t like it.
GCs (General Counsels) if you see this happening or you sense it is happening, demand that it stop. Demand to see invoices in which diverse attorneys are billing for work that is actually commensurate with their experience.
And here is where it gets real.
GCs: if diverse attorneys were included in RFPs but are not on invoices, or are on invoices in trifling ways (e.g., a 4th year associate doing the work of a law clerk or summer associate), then pull the work AND TELL THE FIRM WHY YOU ARE PULLING THE WORK. And if you really want to teach a lesson: put it in writing. People tend to change their bad behavior when reprimanded for it.
We must remember that we do not live and work in silos and that our success depends on community. You fail alone, but you succeed with others. If you achieve a measure of success, no matter where you are in your career, consider how you can help someone else advance. It could be sharing that a company is hiring, establishing a mentoring relationship, making yourself informally available to the students at your alma mater, or reviewing a draft of a friend’s scholarly writing. It could mean that you and your friends have a mastermind group in which you all discuss goals, work environments, leadership, and community involvement. Having a person or group that you can consult in difficult times and that you can call to celebrate victories is invaluable to career development.
The work of diversity and inclusion is intricate and demands that members of the legal profession remain creative, diligent, and tenacious in its pursuit. What are your thoughts on achieving diversity and inclusion in the workplace?