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"Judge Not...": How the Legal Profession Continues to Fail at Inclusion

Posted By Administration, Thursday, November 15, 2018

Evin L. Grant, Esq., Campbell Law School

“Our criminal justice system needs reforming and the perfect person for the job may have dreadlocks. Meanwhile, you, an attorney, have encouraged them to cut their pride and dignity off so they can ‘fit in.’” @jastalkslaw (Attorney Jas, Twitter)

I read this tweet and it really bothered me. Not because of what it said, but because of what it signifies. What did it mean to “fit in”?  Recently the legal profession has put a lot of emphasis on the buzzword “inclusion.” We simultaneously embrace it while also trying to avoid the realities of what it implies, there was a point in time when the profession was exclusive.

I shared the tweet with a friend, “Jane Doe” and we discussed the origin of this article. We talked a bit about our thoughts and feelings as it related to the concept of “fitting in.”  We opined on how "fitting in" forces us to imitate the external image of a “lawyer.” In the years she's been a valued asset to her firm, she's believes "if [she] had shown up to [her] job interview without makeup, [her] hair not artificially [improved], [her] tan not artificially enhanced, regardless of the fact [she] had on a [tailored] suit and a good resume, [she] would not have gotten the job.”

Have we become a profession of profile? Do we continue to equate appearance with ability? A character and fitness couture? As Jane Doe stated, “the legal profession in general 100% bases your ability [to] work on how you appear.” This sat with me. What defines my ability to other lawyers? Is it my three-piece suits or my earrings and tattoos? What about me, makes me "fit in"? Or is it that I don't fit in that determines their impression?

Even with our dedication to inclusivity, I ask, are we still being exclusive? I submit to you that we still are. In 2017, the National Association of Law Placement reported, of 112,090 lawyers, 35% are women, 15% are minorities, and 8% are minority women. (2017 Report on Diversity in U.S. Law Firms, https://www.nalp.org/uploads/2017NALPReportonDiversityinUSLawFirms.pdf, 2017). We aspire to increase our inclusivity, but it appears we only accept people who already “fit in” to the profession.

In law school admissions, we visit the schools where students’ parents are already doctors and lawyers, rather than visiting the schools that could benefit from exposure to the profession. In hiring, we exclude highly capable candidates over technical requirements that have no bearing on their ability to perform. When promoting internally, we exclude the most valuable associate because they don't participate in Thursday afternoon golf.

How do we fix this? First, as a profession, let's stop putting the image of a lawyer in a box. I remember my time as a magistrate judge and the first thing most people would say, "you're not what I thought you'd look like." My response, "what are judges supposed to look like?"

Google the word "lawyer" and view the images. What do you see? As lawyers, this is the image we've created of ourselves. If we want to be exposed to a different image we have to search "woman lawyer," "Muslim lawyer," "Black lawyer," Hispanic lawyer."

Secondly, let’s stop putting our diverse employees on the “Diversity and Inclusion Committee,” but leaving them off of the “Executive Committee” or “Hiring Committee.”  We profess inclusion but fail to include diverse employees on decision-making committees within our organization because they don't "fit in" with the culture of the firm. We have to accept that not all lawyers will look or behave as we do.

Finally, we have to stop being judgmental. Because a woman chooses to wear pants instead of a skirt does not make her inadequate. A lawyer’s decision to wear bright-color ties or patterned shirts does not have any bearing on his or her ability to perform. The name "Daquan," "Muhammud," or "Sue" is not representative of one's ability to add value to an organization.

The legal profession is one of tradition, prestige and integrity. However, these words are not synonymous with inflexibility, prejudice and exclusion. We cannot continue to judge people because they do not look like our ideal image of a "capable lawyer" while as a profession we profess greater inclusivity.

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