The legal profession is currently under siege by stressors challenging the paradigm of success that has been the touchstone of lawyers for generations. Technology is a major change agent disrupting the status quo. It also is putting a spotlight on diversity and inclusion in the legal profession.
I personally prefer the word inclusion rather than diversity. The difference between diversity and inclusion is the difference between being invited to the dinner party and being allowed to eat at the table—and even participate in after-dinner drinks. We may have achieved diverse representation of women and minorities in law schools and at the early stages of legal careers, but we know that representation at the top of organizations does not include women and minorities in a proportion relative to the general population.
Technology offers a unique opportunity for diverse lawyers to be more meaningfully included—and to compete with traditional powerhouses. Now everyone who has an internet connection has access to developments in the law and the world in real time. This means that solo and small practitioners—the majority of Illinois lawyers—have an opportunity to gain expertise and access resources to serve clients that previously were the province only of those in large firms.
Because information is freely available, those who are creative, skilled in analyzing, and able to synthesize and apply legal principles in new ways to help clients, will be successful. In contrast, those who have profited not by responding to clients’ needs but by leveraging their positions of power may be left out of the game. We are returning to a profession marked by lawyers creatively, effectively and efficiently demystifying the law and problem-solving for our clients. This may level the playing field for all lawyers, including diverse ones. Good ideas come from all directions.
I really appreciate this change in reflecting back at my years recruiting for law firms. The informal but pervasive touchstone in recruiting new lawyers then was: “Who would you not mind being stuck in an elevator with?” or “going on an out of town business trip with?” Choosing new associates by this method may lead to a cohesive and comfortable work environment. It also leads to like-minded candidates being hired. It does not lead to diversity of thought, to garnering different perspectives, to understanding our clients’ needs or to crafting innovative solutions to address their problems.
Moreover, the very foundational basis of our government being by the people for the people is shaken when only some of the people are included. Those members of the public looking at the legal and judicial systems from the outside may not trust that the system is fair and impartial.
Recognizing that a lack of diversity undermines the core values of our profession, the Supreme Court defined the purpose of the Commission on Professionalism (in Supreme Court Rule 799(a)) as including “foster[ing] commitment to the elimination of bias and divisiveness within the legal and judicial systems.” To help in this large mission, one of the tools the Court provided was to very broadly define the professional responsibility CLE requirement (in Rule 794(d)) as including diversity issues. The Commission collaborates with interested individuals and organizations on programs and initiatives. We also encourage interactive diversity programs that explore methods to eliminate bias and divisiveness—in other words, to increase inclusion.
The hope is that increased opportunities for women and minorities are coming along with the new approaches—and apps—that are daily changing the way lawyers work. If so, we will revitalize our profession, earn greater trust from the public, and strengthen our communities and society. ■