Strategies for Navigating Difficult Conversations About Diversity in the Legal Profession

Young woman communicating with African American human resource manager while applying for job at corporate office.In January and February, the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession is encouraging lawyers to spend one hour talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion with another professional whose diversity is different from theirs.

Through this initiative, called #TalkIntoAction, IILP hopes to expose lawyers to different points of view and encourage them to critically examine their perspectives while learning from others.

The #TalkIntoAction initiative is open to all legal professionals and the conversations can happen anywhere (e.g., in the office, over Zoom, at lunch, etc.). IILP lays out a few ground rules here and encourages participants to share a photo or screenshot of their #TalkIntoAction conversation on social media or with

Before having these conversations, our DEI Manager Julia Roundtree Livingston said lawyers should consider why diversity, equity, and inclusion are important goals in the legal profession.

“Lawyers and judges who better understand the communities they serve can help build public confidence in the justice system and respond to the needs of all who require legal help,” Roundtree Livingston said. “Moreover, diverse and inclusive legal professionals support an improved culture at law firms, which can positively impact the productivity and mental health of attorneys.”

Roundtree Livingston participated in the challenge last year with Judge Lindsey Shelton of Macon County, Illinois.

Two women posed together in a courtroom in front a a judges bench.
Julia Roundtree Livingston and Judge Lindsey Shelton participate in #TalkIntoAction 2023.

Having difficult conversations

Engaging in a conversation about diversity in the legal profession or elsewhere can be intimidating. The Commission talks to Illinois lawyers about how to approach these conversations in our CLE “We Need To Talk: Navigating Challenging Conversations About Diversity,” which we deliver virtually and in person around the state.

Below we share some tips from the CLE on interrupting your implicit biases to get the most out of these #TalkIntoAction conversations.

First, examine your implicit biases.

We all have implicit biases. In some respects, we are all—at least initially—limited by the scope of our backgrounds and lived experiences.

Many of the quick judgments or assessments we make each day are viewed through the prism of these perspectives. Therefore, our first instinct may be to view our background and experiences as “normal.”

Regardless of whether it’s intentional or not, our biases can impact others, making them feel unwelcome, unsupported, and devalued.

However, in conversations about diversity in the legal profession, we can interrupt those biases by:

  • Start with a commitment to be fair. If you commit to fairness in a conversation or shared experiences, you are much more likely to treat others this way. Why? Because you are intentionally thinking about it, which can also make it easier for you to spot your own biases.
  • Recognize that we believe ourselves to be bias-free. Rebecca Howlett and Cynthia Sharp wrote in the ABA’s GPSolo publication that, “it is important to recognize that we all carry biases as we are products of our system.” They went on to say that while our unconscious biases can be resistant to change, we can work to disrupt them if we’re “constantly confronted with recurring evidence” that they need to change. So, the issue isn’t whether such biases exist; the issue is committing to interrupting them.
  • Try not to be defensive if someone draws your attention to a bias. If someone points out an unconscious bias, notice if you’re shifting into self-preservation mode, then focus on listening to them and trying to fully understand their perspective. Ask clarifying questions if you need to. Listening doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, but it does take strength and humility on your part and allows the other person to be heard.
  • Learn from your discomfort. You don’t have to be an expert on the background or culture of others but can be interested in learning about it. Ask questions, let your partner educate you about their background and experiences, and offer the same to them. This honesty and vulnerability will lead to more meaningful communication.​

More dos and don’ts

Here are some additional dos and don’ts if you experience or find yourself exhibiting bias:

If you experience bias:

  • Don’t blame yourself for the other person’s behavior or comments. You didn’t cause the other person’s bias and aren’t at fault.
  • Don’t hold yourself responsible for the conversation’s outcome. You have no control over the other person’s intentions or reactions to the conversation.
  • Don’t apologize for initiating the conversation. This is meant to be a learning experience. Your goal is to provide the other person with insights into the experiences of someone different and to try to understand their experiences too.
  • Do focus on the other person’s words and behavior rather than their perceived intentions. What you hear and see should be your focus; you can’t guess what their intentions are.
  • Do consider suggesting how the other person could have handled the situation in a way that made you feel valued and respected.
  • Do make a few notes regarding what happened and how it made you feel (e.g., excluded, marginalized, disrespected).​

If you find yourself exhibiting bias:

  • Don’t do nothing, which can make your partner feel devalued or unimportant.
  • Don’t sidetrack or terminate the conversation​, which can make your partner feel angry and disrespected.
  • Don’t try to appease your partner by saying what you think they want to hear. This may make your partner feel that you’re being inauthentic and aren’t taking the situation seriously.
  • Do engage in good faith. If you’re willing to have a conversation, do so honestly and openly. If you’re not quite in that space, ask to reschedule so you can prepare yourself emotionally.
  • Do be open to changing your behavior and perspective.
  • Do validate what you can sincerely affirm. You may not fully appreciate or agree with the other person, however, if there are things you could have handled better, commit to doing so in the future and thank your partner for allowing you to have this experience. ​

​We hope to see your #TalkIntoAction conversations about diversity in the legal profession on social media!

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