Many of the young lawyers of color I mentor — both in-house and at law firms — are being asked to lead internal diversity efforts, or are even volunteering to do so.
But should they?
Events in the news have brought corporate and law firm leadership to the stark realization that they don’t have Black and Brown leaders. In many cases, they don’t have more than a smattering of color even in their middle ranks. Sure, they’ve got minority scholarships and adopt-a-schools and entry level positions galore. But where the money and decisions are made? It tends to be a gated, all-white community with a strong non-discrimination policy — on paper.
It cracks me up when I see a law firm tout the diversity of its non-attorney staff. No, we don’t have any minority practice group leaders, executive committee members, rainmakers, or equity partners; but yes, our help is Black and Latina!
In-house law departments across America are going to their entry-level counsel of color and asking them to lead diversity efforts. Law firm associates are being asked to do the same in many law firms. Liên Payne and Lauren Skerrett have each written powerful, thought-provoking pieces from an associate’s eye-view of BigLaw diversity efforts.
So, you’ve been asked to take the lead on an internal Diversity Committee. This can be a real opportunity to interact with the powerbrokers in your firm or company, as well as client business leaders. Or it can be a massive time-suck of activity that doesn’t make a difference. Let’s take law firms. As an associate, the brutal truth is that you’re worth what you bill. You may be spending time recruiting and mentoring minority summer associates, coming up with fun networking opportunities, and building strong affinity groups.
And while you’re doing that, your white colleagues are billing hours and working with the top dealmakers and trial lawyers in the firm on career-building client matters. If that’s what serving on the diversity committee of your firm will look like, think hard about passing on the “opportunity.” Maybe the firm says the time will count toward your billable hours. But when the firm is making cuts or promotions, will they also be looking at profitability?
If top management and rainmakers are not serving with you on these law firm committees, if you don’t have money to get your minority lawyers directly connected to clients and mechanisms to get them on career-making client matters, then you are likely just helping the law firm look busy at diversity. This, as my friend Joel Stern says, is just “admiring the problem.”
BigLaw has been looking busy admiring the diversity problem for decades with scholarships, pipeline programs, gala dinner tables, and sponsoring very-important-diversity-task-forces-that-put-white-partners-in-touch-with-clients-to-further-admire-the-problem, and now with Black Lives Matter proclamations. And the numbers never really got better. My best guess is they’ve gotten worse with stealth layoffs in the current recession; next year’s NALP numbers will tell the tale. Law firms have taken a page from corporate America with the “right-sizing” concept.
To look good to the market by reversing the pandemic-induced pay cuts, some firms are restoring salaries by laying off “excess” personnel. If this has happened in your firm, take a look at who’s gone. Are they disproportionately Black and Brown? If that’s the case and you want to stay with your current firm, focus on client-billable hours and doing great work on high-profit matters, not helping the firm to further admire its diversity problem. And tell AboveTheLaw, anonymously if need be, so they can shine a light on this nonsense before it gets out of hand as it did in the Great Recession.
In-house, the analysis is similar. Are corporate leaders asking you to solve the problem, or are they taking action to solve it themselves while including you in the discussion? Are they examining pay equity, not just for gender, but for race and ethnicity? (hat-tip to Alexis Robertson for calling that issue out to me; if you ever have an opportunity to hear Alexis speak on pretty much anything diversity-related, don’t miss it!) Is leadership putting minorities into the below-the-radar leadership development programs, or are they just slotting people of color into minority programs?
Does the CEO or GC just pop into diversity activities for a big-picture pep talk and then exit, or does leadership surround itself with diverse talent? Is leadership actively cultivating people of color through one-on-one mentoring and actively positioning them for success by putting them on high-profile projects while coaching them to be successful and then celebrating their success? If those things are happening — and I know that they are in many corporate law departments — then by all means pitch in and help on the diversity committees. If they are not, focus on doing your job, building your internal network, and adding value, if you want to succeed in that company.
But above all else, whether or not you serve on the Diversity Committee, help other lawyers of color. Champion them. However junior you are, mentor someone more junior.
When you are in a position to make another lawyer of color look good or avoid a mistake, jump at the chance to help. If you are in-house and can help your outside counsel of color to be successful by getting origination credit, or kudos for a win, or invited to speak, take a few minutes to make it happen. If an opportunity to speak or attend a great program comes your way, figure out how you can share that opportunity with another lawyer of color.
Who has time? You do.
Forward an email. Pick up the phone. Send a text. Tell someone about this blog. I’m privileged to be friends with a brilliant Black senior associate, Megan Lawson. Megan bills a gazillion hours at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, which recruited her away from a firm that didn’t realize what a treasure she is. And yet, she finds time to mentor several female lawyers of color at other law firms. And lead a national career development program for young lawyers of color. Also take care of her parents. How does she do it? She just does, because it’s important to her.
A lawyer I admire greatly is my friend Meyling Ly Ortiz. Mey is a valued in-house partner to the business at Toyota. And a devoted mom, wife, and daughter. And a mentor to in-house lawyers and law firm associates all over the country. She diligently writes a beautifully-crafted blog sharing her own personal development path, with tangible tips on career success, overcoming imposter syndrome, and dealing with the uneven playing field of intersectionality as a mother and lawyer of color. It’s called themeybe and if you have to choose between making the time to read my blog or Mey’s — choose Mey’s. My blog is good; but it’s not that good.
I see lots of Chief Legal Officers writing letters and giving speeches on diversity, figuratively wagging their fingers. Funny thing is, the only time diverse lawyers ever see some of these GCs is when they show up to give a speech or sit on a panel at some diversity conference, then leave without actually spending time with the membership. Contrast that with the low-key but impactful efforts of Won Hur, Deputy General Counsel at Fair.com. He mentors young lawyers. He connects in-house counsel to outside counsel. He’s active in legal diversity organizations not just when someone sticks a microphone in his hand, but when he thinks he can make a difference. Won does the work, every day, as just a part of who he is. When he shows up at a conference, he’s fully present, meeting and encouraging young lawyers, connecting great people to one another.
My point is, you don’t need to be on the Diversity Committee to make a meaningful difference. If being on the Diversity Committee will have a real impact, by all means serve. If all you’re doing is helping your employer look busy admiring the problem, consider taking a pass.
I hope you find some value in ColorOfLaw.Us. More importantly, if you know any young lawyers of color who might, please forward it and encourage them to subscribe.
When we lift one another, we all rise.