The Future is Now for Diversity and Inclusion

On May 2, 2018, the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism hosted our third annual future law conference: The Future is Now: Legal Services 2.018. The conference featured a welcome address from Illinois’s Chief Justice, Lloyd Karmeier, ten TED-style talks, four town hall discussions, and a final call to action from the Commission’s Executive Director, Jayne Reardon. We had almost four hundred attorneys from across the state and country attend and talk about the most pressing issues facing our legal profession, including data analytics, artificial intelligence, access to justice, and diversity and inclusion.

Three of our speakers focused on diversity issues in their talks. All came to the stage with a similar message: if we want change, we need to be that change. How do we do that?

1. We need to do more than mentor; we need to invest.

If we can’t understand why, after decades of professional development initiatives, our minority and women recruitment, retention, and promotion all remain stagnant, then it’s time for the legal profession to rethink how we do those things. That was the core message from former Commissioner and diversity consultant, Jane DiRenzo Piggott.

Look at mentoring, she said. Diverse attorneys need more than a mentor. They need a champion. They need someone to “pound the table” for them, someone with access to the real rules of the game. They need stretch assignments, and the certainty to know that if they stumble, someone at the top will be there to remind everyone that only work gets judged, not gender, race, or other identity.

Or take feedback. Black women attorneys have told me that they went years in their law firm only receiving positive feedback, until the day they were told they weren’t being promoted. Positive, uncritical feedback is not helpful for anyone. With only praise and no suggestions for improvement, minority attorneys can stagnate at their positions and miss out on serious investment from partners and supervisors in their careers.

The reality is, if we want to move the needle forward on diversity and inclusion, we need to get intentional in mentoring, sponsoring, and training diverse attorneys while also holding ourselves accountable for change.

2. We need to get uncomfortable about diversity.

Last year, I wrote about someone who told me they could never go into an all-black church because they would feel too uncomfortable. I told them in return, “I have been to more all-white churches than I can count.” More than churches, I have been in more all-white spaces than I can count. The reality of being a minority in a majority white country is that you have no choice but to go into all-white spaces. And I thought about that as I listened to Toussaint Romain’s talk. The former assistant public defender from Charlotte, Toussaint brought black culture into the very white space that is future law and legal tech. He played Kendrick Lamar. He talked about Black Lives Matter. He shared pictures of himself with famous black Americans. He put black America front and center at our futures conference.

Meanwhile, Jane Pigott talked about the “Mike Pence Rule,” where men will not go out to dinner with a woman who is not their wife. She pointed out that rule only works if you are a man, because men hold the leadership roles in almost every American workspace. Women cannot only go to lunch with other women if they want to advance. Similarly, attorneys of color cannot only socialize with other attorneys of color if they want to advance. Minorities have no choice but to get uncomfortable in the majority spaces in which they work and live. If we want to change the conversation on diversity and inclusion, let’s encourage our majority and male attorneys to do the same.

3. We need space to talk about diversity.

Speaking of the Mike Pence Rule, that led to a lot of chatter throughout the afternoon from our audience microphones, on the 2Civility app, and in the feedback forms we received afterward. Which is great. Because talking is not just good for change, it’s necessary. The comments were varied. The speakers went too far, the speakers didn’t go far enough. The speakers demanded too much of majority attorneys, the speakers demanded too little of them. The Pence Rule is reductive of women and keeps them from true inclusion in the workplace. The Pence Rule is respectful of women and ensures men aren’t accused of harassment. The comments that came in by the dozens all made clear one thing – there is a long conversation on diversity and inclusion that we are having in this country. We need to create as many spaces as we can for that conversation to take place.

4. We need more diverse representation in legal tech.

We lack full diverse representation in the legal profession. And by some measures, our lack of diversity is even worse than that of the tech industry. That’s why Kristen Sonday, a legal tech entrepreneur, shared her frustration with the lack of diverse representation at every level of legal tech – startup founders, incubators, angel investors, engineers, to name just a few. One of the problems, she pointed out, is that when diverse communities are not represented, the problems that they face are often not represented either. How do we address low-income clients who do not speak English as a first language, who get their cell phone services frequently cut off, who are struggling with immigration issues, who need help with TROs and traffic tickets and parental leave and wage and hour disputes? If legal tech isn’t recognizing these concerns, then it’s leaving out a huge swath of the population in its search for more efficient justice.

5. We need to move mountains – pebble by pebble.

I remember a program I attended a couple years back. After listening to all the very well-intentioned speakers, one attendee stood up and said this: “I have been attending diversity programs for twenty years and it’s always the same thing and nothing has changed.” I’ve only been attending diversity programs for ten years but I see his point. (I’ve written about it too). It can honestly feel, particularly when you are heavily involved in the diversity field, that nothing has changed. And even when things have changed for the better (see, for example pre-recession numbers for black attorneys), they then change for the worse (see also, post-recession numbers for black attorneys). It’s easy to say “be the change” but actually being the change takes time and hard work, with results that may not reveal themselves for years, or even decades from now.

So this last point is what I remember the most from Toussaint Romain. Because he started and ended with a story. About a mountain that needed to be moved, and the question that all those who had to move the mountain were asking. How can we, mere humans, take down an entire mountain? The answer? Pebble by pebble.

We can all move mountains. And in diversity and inclusion, we need to keep moving. Some days you’ll move a boulder (see #MeToo), but most days, all you’ll move are more and more pebbles. But keep moving. Pebble by pebble, stone by stone, rock by rock, because one day, we will have moved an entire mountain.

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Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle Silverthorn

After spending seventeen years living in the Caribbean, Michelle undertook a number of around-the-world detours before ending up at the doorstep of the Commission, including four years as a general litigator in New York and Chicago. She remembers pretty much everyone she’s met in her travels but she would especially like to meet again the passengers on a January 2001 flight from Miami to JFK. At the pilot’s request, they donated enough money for Michelle, who had her wallet stolen, to get back to college safely. She would very much like to tell them all thanks.
Michelle Silverthorn

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