Social injustice and racial inequality are issues this country has been talking about for centuries, but have risen to new levels in recent months after outrage over the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, among others. Things get more complex when you add in that we are still in the midst of a global pandemic that has caused widespread salary cuts and layoffs across many industries including legal, and coupled with that, we are in the thick of what appears to be a monumental election season. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, more than 80% of organizations have released or will release a statement to employees about racial injustice and the protests against it. But as the months go by with more civil unrest protests continuing their stronghold around the country we must ask ourselves—is this just a moment in our history or will it finally be the movement that brings about real change? All of this perpetuates the continuum of our industry struggles in becoming more diverse, equitable and inclusive. It is no secret that the legal industry is not diverse or inclusive yet we lead our judicial systems and provide heads of corporations among other esteemed positions.

So the time has come for firms to get with it and really get talking about the social injustices and racial inequalities that continue to plague our firms. Although these topics are uncomfortable to talk about, law firms must open the door to these discussions in order to not just strengthen their diversity, equity and inclusion efforts but to also change firm cultures that have been closeminded to these conversations in the past.

We don’t have to look too far to find examples of why these conversations must take place in order to combat systemic racism issues in our industry. One of the diverse lawyers in our firm has been mistaken for a paralegal and a court reporter several times both by judges and opposing counsel and once, after finishing an oral argument, the judge asked her if our firm did not think the matter was “important enough to send someone else” to handle it. Then there is the two of us. Both of us have worked in the legal industry for almost 20 years, are almost the same age and have similar academic credentials. Besides the role of lawyer, we both have held almost every position available in a law firm setting. And while our paths are very similar (both of us are also entrepreneurs having owned nonlegal businesses while also working in the legal field) they have also been distinctly different. Earlier in her career and despite receiving exemplary performance reviews and given increased responsibility, Rasheda was passed over for a position that was ultimately given to a younger, less experienced nonminority—something for which Jessica cannot relate most presumably due to white privilege. When you hear that term you may cringe, you may think it’s not a real thing, but it is. White privilege doesn’t mean that you don’t have problems that you don’t face adversity or challenges or struggles—it just means that you don’t have those issues and those problems because of the color of your skin— they are caused by some other reason.

A great article by our colleague Cheryl Borland, “The Intersectionality of Diversity and Inclusion: How Do We Pivot From ‘Them’ to ‘Us’?,” poignantly discusses “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, which create overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage. In a nutshell, intersectionality brings race, gender, class, religion and gender identity, as well as social and economic disparity together as interconnected forces. There is simply no escaping its impact—these systems of oppression impact our lives wherever we are and whoever we are.” When issues in the world around us and issues at home begin to bubble over into the workplace, it sends a clear message that it’s not something that can or should be ignored. So while discussing racial inequality can be difficult and uncomfortable—prime example, the number of you who cringed when you read the phrase “white privilege”—these conversations are critical. Notably, when discussed in hushed-tones among staff, conversations about racial inequalities can take an unproductive turn. But by thoughtfully cultivating these discussions and implementing lessons learned, firm leaders will not only provide a safe space for attorneys and staff to have respectful and honest conversations, but also show a level of comfort when engaging in those conversations. Now is a good time as any to instigate these discussions in a collaborative and supportive setting. When people of color share experiences that they have endured, there is hope that others will become more empathetic in their understanding. Communication is key as you strive to make progress. There is an importance for leaders to actually lead and have the right conversations about race in the workplace. Here are a few easy tips for law firms who want to navigate these types of conversations responsibly and sensitively.

  • Be open and thoughtful. State your intentions by explaining why you want to engage on a sensitive topic such as race. Being transparent can have a very positive result but it needs to be done with a certain level of thoughtfulness. It’s also important to create a safe environment where all employees feel comfortable to have an open or individual dialogue about race. However, if someone does not want to speak or share their experiences, do not force them.
  • Listening to what your attorneys and staff have to say is crucial. Let them know you are interested in what they have to say and what they say matters. An open and safe forum free of judgment is crucial. But be smart—set ground rules, prohibit political discussions that typically can invoke overly intense and heated conversations and also request any specific acts of racial discrimination be brought up privately with HR.
  • Ask your attorneys and staff for feedback on what the firm could do to better address racism in the workplace. Make it anonymous in order to ensure that employees provide real and honest feedback that the firm can then digest and respond in a thoughtful and positive way.
  • This is not a one and done conversation. It also doesn’t have to happen every week. But it’s important to keep race, and other diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) issues, at the forefront of your firm culture. Forming a DE&I committee—comprised of both staff, attorneys and upper level management is a great way to accomplish this.

Some firms may not be willing to invest the time, energy, resources and commitment necessary to promote racial equity. But when we fail to communicate about real life issues we leave the door open for miscommunication, microaggressions and even more discrimination. Discussions about race can seem intimidating at first and that first conversation may be the toughest, but it will get easier. Ultimately the goal is to create a more inclusive culture, understanding that while we are all different, while we may not all share the same experiences, we all want the same things: to be valued and respected regardless of any inherent traits. Because remember, it’s a movement, not a moment.

Reprinted with permission from the September 24, 2020 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. © 2020 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.

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