Diversity: Why checking the “box” is not enough
On February 15, 2008, I had the privilege to speak as a panelist at “the Hire Big 10 Diversity in the Law 2008” seminar at the ISBA. A panel of practitioners, professors, and in-house counsel spoke to a group of diverse prospective law students on a range of issues. I talked with the students on practical steps that they could take to enhance their law school applications. While I commented on strategic moves with respect to timing, getting recommendation letters, and establishing a relationship with admissions office counselors, I primarily focused on the significance of diversity with respect to one’s application.
I am openly and proudly gay. It was not until 2003 that I was able to say that out loud to myself or others. When I applied to the University of Pennsylvania Law School, I checked the “LGBT” box. Having a “box” for LGBT diversity is a positive development that more law schools besides Penn are rightfully beginning to include in their applications and more clients arebeginning to consider when they evaluate a law firm’s diversity.
As both an applicant to Penn and as an admissions reader during law school, it crossed my mind, “what if someone who is not really LBGT, checks the box anyway?” Perhaps he or she is conveniently bisexual or is “in a phase” during the application process and then is conveniently “straight” again after being accepted. This issue tends not to arise with other traditionally recognized diverse groups on law school applications, such as African-American or Hispanic, because one’s racial and ethnic backgrounds are often visible to others. Being LGBT, however, is not in the same sense a “visible” minority.
So why do law schools not seriously worry about applicants pretending to be LGBT? The answer to this question is illustrative of the over-arching point that I made to the students at the seminar: it is simply not enough for diverse students to just check the appropriate box. Something more is required. A law school does not benefit from its students’ diversity if those students are not willing to share, both in and outside of the classroom, how their diversity has shaped their perspectives. Likewise, law students must illustrate in their applica- tions how being diverse has affected them and how their diversity enhances their abilities to help others. For instance, when I applied to law school, my statement addressed my struggle with my sexual orientation and how those challenges intensified my desire to engage in public service and study law. I recalled remorsefully the sociology class where I spoke out openly against same-sex marriage and parenting based on my religious and political convictions, knowing at the time I was in complete denial about my own sexual orientation. I elaborated on my journey and how coming to terms with my sexual orientation forced me to identify with other disenfranchised minority groups struggling for equal rights and protection. I emphasized how terrified I was by the fragility of my rights. I addressed how I struggled with the assumptions others made about me and how I searched to find harmony between my social and politi- cal background and my sexual orienta- tion. Finally, I shared my recognition of a frightening reality: the stronger and more courageous I was to live an authentic, honest life, the more rejection, harassment and oppression I may experience. My anger and frustration towards homophobia made me more sensitive to other types of biases towards others as well. It heightened my intellectual curiosity about marginalized groups’ struggles to obtain and hold on to legal rights. I came to appre- ciate law as a vehicle by which I could educate others as well as further the protections of the rights of other disenfranchised groups.
Thus, if an applicant “chooses” to be gay, but his or her application does not indicate how he or she has been shaped by his or her experiences and how he or she plans to translate those experiences into dealings with others, the application is likely to be placed in the increasingly larger “denied” pile at law schools. So the problem solves itself.
Whether you are LGBT, Hispanic, African-American or fall into another “box” on a law school application, sharing your story and struggles and how they relate to your identity, views, and desire to go to law school is crucial. The importance of this sharing extends beyond getting into law school, and is connected to one’s success in law school and in the practice of law too. Law as a profession grows when its members fully embrace their identities in the workplace, and challenge blatant and covert stereotypes of their co-work- ers and their clients.
John R. Richards is a member of the Labor & Employment Group in the Chicago office of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius.