Member Groups

The Challenge
The newsletter of the ISBA’s Standing Committee on Racial and Ethnic Minorities and the Law

December 2007, vol. 18, no. 2

The challenges of being the only __________ in a law firm (or other legal setting)

The Black Law Students Association of the Southern Illinois University School of Law and the Illinois State Bar Association’s Minority and Women Participation Committee recently co-sponsored a panel discussion addressing the challenges of being the only ________ in a law firm or other legal setting. The discussion took place in the Lesar Law Building at SIU School of Law.

Participating panelists included attorneys Andrew Fox, Chief of Staff of the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation; George Norwood, Assistant U.S. Attorney in Benton; Staci Yandle, a solo practitioner in Belleville; Bill Dorothy, a senior lecturer at the Washington University School of Law; Brandi Johnson, a small-firm practitioner in St. Louis; Howard Rosenblum, senior attorney at Equip for Equality in Chicago, Tracy Posser, a career law clerk in the U.S. District Court in Benton, and Leonard Gross, a professor from SIU School of Law. 

With the question posed regarding the challenges of being the only ________, the term ‘diversity’ expanded to a more enveloping definition. Although typically the term tends to connote minority cultures or races, the composition of panel illustrated that “diversity” also envelops disabilities, gender and sexual orientation. As Andrew Fox stated in his opening comments, “A true diversity of society is more than just race and culture. . . . If you want to be a learned person and not live in the past, [then] expand your view of diversity because it includes sexual orientation, those male and female and people with [disabilities].”

With that introduction, the next distinguished panelist began, “My name is Howard Rosenblum, and despite the feminine tone in my voice that you are hearing right now, it’s not me speaking. That’s my sign language interpreter.” Mr. Rosenblum is currently the only profoundly deaf attorney in the State of Illinois and one of approximately 150 profoundly deaf attorneys in the United States. He eloquently stated that, while there are physical and communication barriers that do need to be addressed, people with disabilities should not have to deal with “attitudinal barriers.” Attitudinal barriers, such as societal views that limit the lives of people with disabilities and people with disabilities thinking that they cannot do for themselves, unnecessarily hinder the lives of those with physical differences.

Brandi Johnson, paralyzed from the neck down when she was 19 years old continued, “I always wanted to be a lawyer and after I was injured I finished undergrad and then went to law school. I never really stopped to think about not doing it, to be honest.” Impressively, Ms. Johnson represents a caseload of 170 clients, navigating her way around courthouses, some inaccessible. Her straightforward advice touched on the bottom line dollar value of an attorney to a law firm and illuminated her opinion that a person with a disability just has to find a way around it and get to the point where they are an asset to the firm, in spite of any physical limitation.

Leonard Gross, once one of a handful of Jewish attorneys at a large firm in New York, reiterated the need for a young lawyer to keep in mind that law firms are businesses and the bottom line of the dollar is important. The ramification of this fact of life is that young attorneys who bring billable hours will be provided incentives so that they can continue to work more hours. In his experience, taking off Jewish holidays was not an issue as long as his work was covered and the job for the clients got done.

Staci Yandle, a plaintiffs’ personal injury trial lawyer, found the first challenge she confronted as an attorney was low expectations. Rising to that challenge she followed the advice of her mother, “You have to work harder. You have to be better. You have to do more.” Today in 2007, just as in 1987, she is most often the only person of color sitting at counsel table in the courtroom. While always conscious of her difference, she did not want to be self-conscious. Consequently, the greatest neutralizer she learned was to be competent as an attorney and comfortable in her own skin. Not only did the way she carry herself in her career prove to be a neutralizer, but also an advantage. Coming into a courtroom underestimated and then rising to prove that underestimation false gets the attention of the jury and it gets the attention of the judge.

Tracy Prosser previously worked in a large law firm in Chicago and talked about the challenges of being a female in a large law firm. In her view, the challenges female attorneys face today are vastly different from those women faced 20 years ago. As far as opportunities, women are getting the same opportunities. However, it is a challenge for females to develop relationships with law firm partners and clients when such development typically takes place over activities that tend to cater to men. Furthermore, it tends to be more difficult for a female to ask a male associate, law firm partner, or client to lunch on a one-on-one basis. To combat societal norms, Ms. Prosser suggested that females initiated group lunches. Another informative suggestion was for young female attorneys to pick a law firm or law firm department with a number of female partners to enhance mentoring opportunities.

George Norwood gave straightforward advice regarding a prospective employer wanting to interview someone because of the potential to increase their firm’s diversity. In essence, he advised students to take the interview and once in the door to “work hard, harder, and even hardest.” He also counseled on how to be an activist for diversity by putting your goal in terms of a client’s perspective. In his example, a confederate flag hung on the outside of a secretary’s window at a large law firm. Rather than claim it was offensive on a personal level, he approached the situation by cleverly informing his superiors that if he were a client and saw that flag, then he would take his business elsewhere. The flag was gone by the end of the day and it never reappeared. 

Bill Dorothy opened with the story of a man who was black but could pass as white analogizing this anecdote to the way many law firms first approached diversity in the 1980s. Twenty years ago many law firms appeared to want to hire diverse attorneys, but in actuality perhaps wanted people who could pass as non-diverse. However, throughout his career he has seen a shift of attitude towards homosexual attorneys from that of toleration to more open acceptance. While he could distinctly remember gay attorneys being turned down for positions in law firms because of their homosexuality in the 1980s, the stigmatization is not as present today. Law students now have a multitude of organizations supporting attorneys who are homosexual and providing career assistance. 

The distinguished panelists, as diverse from each other as to the majority culture, provided straightforward advice for up-and-coming attorneys on the brink of entering the real world. Play your advantages. Do not let your disadvantages rule the day. Combat prejudice intelligently. Be an asset. Work hard, harder, the hardest. Be comfortable with yourself and you will find your place.