Member Groups

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

June 2008, vol. 2, no. 1

Ten strategies for attorneys facing the challenges of diversity

While there is an increasing desire for diversity in the legal profession, diversity brings with it some special challenges for attorneys who transcend the traditional attorney mold. Elizabeth Gastelum reported on some of those challenges in the last edition of The Challenge in an article about a panel discussion—“The Challenges of Being the Only ____ in a Law Firm (or Other Legal Setting”—held at the Southern Illinois University School of Law in October 2007.

But the news is not all bad. Attorneys who participated in the SIU program recommended a variety of strategies for coping with those challenges—one of which is to recognize that, sometimes, being “different” can be advantageous.

Interestingly, although the panelists discussed the challenges from a wide variety of perspectives—as a person of color, of their gender, religion, sexual orientation, or disability—they shared some universal strategies for addressing those challenges. This article focuses on 10 strategies that emerged as common themes throughout the program.

1. Recognize the value of diversity.

Staci Yandle, a personal injury attorney in Belleville, underscored one of the primary motivations for diversity in the profession: the desirability of providing clients the opportunity for representation by an attorney who can relate to the client’s situation.

“Many of the plaintiffs who need representation look like me,” said Yandle, who is African-American. “And there are many things, differences in our life experience in terms of understanding and perception and in telling your client’s story to a jury, that if you don’t totally understand it, that comes with difficulty. So what I’m saying to you is that our community does not have sufficient numbers of attorneys like us to represent us.”

Bill Dorothy, who is a senior lecturer at the Washington University School of Law, said the good news is that law firms are beginning to embrace the true meaning of diversity. Previously, he said, many law firms “said they wanted diversity, but what they really wanted were people who looked and acted like old white guys. So if you could pass as an old white guy, then they liked you. . . . And now I think they actually do admire diversity. They understand that a woman may have a different perspective on an issue and her perspective may be right.”

George Norwood, who is an Assistant United States Attorney in Benton, talked about the value of including something on a resume that indicated the diversity a lawyer could bring to an employer. He said that the interest in diversity will help open doors for lawyers of color, but it is up to the lawyers themselves to capitalize on the opportunity.

“If a firm wants to give me an interview because I am smart, and part of the reason is I’m black, I don’t care,” he said. “I just want to get in the door. . . . Once you get in the door, then it’s up to you to prove yourself.”

Some panelists cautioned, however, that diversity is not always fully embraced. Brandy Johnson, who practices in the area of worker’s compensation and medical malpractice in St. Louis, decided not to reference her disability—a neck injury that left her partially paralyzed—on her resume.

“I had the shock value of showing up in a wheelchair and that played against me at times,” she said, adding that while her resume was good and her work was good, “I wasn’t as desirable because of my disability. In my eyes, I really think that was part of the reason I had trouble getting a job.”

Dorothy was similarly circumspect about including a reference to sexual orientation on a resume such as membership in a gay/lesbian student group. He suggested that the information would not affect job prospects with some of the largest employers, but students might be more cautious with small and medium-sized firms.

2. Work harder, be better prepared

Several panelists observed that attorneys who are different—particularly attorneys of color—bear a heavy burden of overcoming prejudicial stereotypes. “One African-American, or one Hispanic attorney makes a misstep in court or we’re not prepared, and you’ll hear, ‘There you go again, those Hispanics,’” said Andy Fox, who currently practices law in the Chicago area.

Yandle said those stereotypes often mean that her talents and skill are underestimated. “It became apparent to me that the expectations of me were low, even from my own colleagues in the firm,” she said. Her strategy for dealing with that challenge “was the way that my parents raised me to deal with it all my life. . . . You have to work harder, you have to be better, you have to do more.”

3. Recognize the advantages of stereotypes

Notwithstanding the detriments, Yandle and several other panelists suggested that there is a power in being underestimated. “They set the bar so low with their attitudes that . . . if they feel they can understand what I am saying, and I’m serious, and that I sound like I may know what I’m talking about, that works to my advantage,” said Yandle.

Johnson said she is similarly underestimated sometimes because of her disability, but it also works to her advantage. “I’m treated a bit differently than other female attorneys,” she said. “I don’t necessarily run into some of the aggression that you sometimes see with female attorneys. Even with the judges, I find that you see the same judges over and over again and a lot of them have said, “‘I admire what you do,’ and I think that gives me a little bit of an advantage.”

Johnson said her disability gives her a particular advantage in her medical malpractice and worker’s compensation practice. “It’s hard to look at me and say your back strain is worth $10,000,” she said. “Most of them have a little chagrin if they try to tell me they can never work again because they broke their foot.”

4. Find a good mentor

Almost all of the panelists spoke of the virtues of finding good mentors and role models. “One of the things that I found very helpful was to identify some partners who can help you out and teach you and help pave your way,” said Tracy Prosser, who formerly worked in a large firm in Chicago but is now a career law clerk for U.S. District Judge J. Phil Gilbert in Benton.

Prosser recommended that women attorneys seek employment in a law firm or department where there are a number of women partners. That way, they have a better chance of finding a partner with a style and personality similar to their own who can serve as a role model.

But not all mentors have to be someone who is of the same race, gender, religion, etc. Prosser said that one of the male partners at her firm took a lot of interest in her work and career advancement. Conversely, Fox observed that a colleague who shared his Hispanic background was not supportive.

5. Take the initiative and be creative

Prosser observed that it is sometimes difficult for a woman or minority to develop relationships with partners or with clients. She said that many of the established partners and established clients are men, who like to engage in activities, like golf, in which women generally don’t participate. She noted that it is also sometimes awkward—because of the potential for office gossip or because of jealous spouses—for a male to invite a female colleague to a business lunch “and that’s where you really develop your relationships as colleagues.”

Prosser’s advice was to “be creative.” Come up with an alternative to the traditional rainmaking activities like golf, go out in small groups rather than one on one, and “you be the one to ask. If you sit back and wait for the guys to ask you out to lunch, you’re going to be waiting a long time and eating alone a lot,” she said.

6. Remember the law firm’s profit motive

Leonard Gross, a law professor at the SIU School of Law, reminded the audience that law firms “are all about making money—that’s what they’re in business for.” As a result, firms tend to focus on the bottom line and not about attorneys’ individual needs or concerns.

“My experience was if you can do the work, do it well, you’re treated fine,” he said. “Taking off Jewish holidays was not an issue. You could do that, and I did, but you had to make sure your work was covered, just like if you were ever going to call in sick, you had to make sure your work was covered or that you were going to make it up yourself.”

Norwood explained how he once resolved a sensitive racial issue by helping superiors see the potential impact on profitability. He said that he saw a Confederate flag prominently displayed in a secretary’s work space. “I thought, ‘Oh my, I can’t look at this,’” he said. “‘But I want a job and I don’t want to be a rabble rouser, so how am I going to do this?’ I thought about it over the weekend and on Monday morning, I came in and said, ‘I see this here and I don’t care about it. But if I were a client, walking through this office, and I saw that there, I would take my business elsewhere.’ It was down by the end of the day.”

The firm’s profit motive also creates opportunities for attorneys of diverse backgrounds to bring in business. Prosser said that when she worked in a large firm, she wished that she had taken advantage of the opportunity to cultivate clients by reaching out to women who worked as in-house counsel or in decision-making positions for clients that the firm served.

Dorothy and Fox similarly discussed the advantages of making connections with potential clients who share a common background. “If you have relationships in your communities, in your cultural base, in your language base and your experience, that’s going to bring money in,” said Fox.

7. Anticipate and educate

Those who are in the mainstream often do not recognize the ways in which they are “privileged” and, therefore, may not recognize the different needs, values, and priorities of attorneys of diverse backgrounds. As a result, attorneys who do not fit the traditional mold, frequently must anticipate potential obstacles and gently educate their colleagues, clients, and judges.

This need to anticipate and educate is particularly true of attorneys with disabilities, said Howard Rosenblum, a senior attorney with Equip for Equality in Chicago, who is one of only a few deaf attorneys in practice. Rosenblum said disabled attorneys first have to educate prospective employers about their duty to make reasonable accommodations for an employee’s disability. “I have to let them know that they have an obligation for communication access, and that’s not always an effective tool to use when you’re trying to get hired,” he said.

He also has had to educate judges about the need to provide interpreters and the procedures for swearing in an interpreter. He said that judges are often confused about “who is the attorney here?” when a sign language interpreter speaks for him in court.

Johnson said that she tries to anticipate accessibility issues when she is appearing at a new courthouse or the offices of opposing counsel, but she doesn’t always have the foresight or time to make the inquiry.

She said that most attorneys have been helpful when she has asked them to retrieve files that are out of her reach from her wheelchair. “But having to ask (for help) is the part that is a little frustrating at times,” she said.

8. Say it with a smile

Although it is easy to lose patience with people who are acting on negative stereotypes or other unenlightened assumptions, panelists urged restraint in addressing the issue. Prosser described instances in which female lawyers were assumed to be secretaries or court reporters. Disabled and minority attorneys are similarly mistaken as clients or support personnel.

“It’s really frustrating,” Prosser said. “But you have to remember that these are your colleagues and if you want to succeed, you have to be pleasant.”

Johnson similarly emphasized the importance of maintaining a positive professional reputation. “Never underestimate the way your carry yourself now and how it may affect you later,” she said. “How you have held yourself out and treated other attorneys may help you down the road. If you have worked hard, you appear competent and prepared, and you’re honest and you treat the other attorneys well, that’s remembered.”

9. Be comfortable with your own identity

The panelists who participated in the discussion rarely lose sight of the fact that they are the only person of their gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or disability in their law office or courtroom.

“I’m always conscious of it,” said Yandle. “But I didn’t want to be self-conscious about. So I learned early on that by being prepared and being competent, and just being in a state in which I’m the most comfortable in my own skin, that tends to neutralize it.”

10. Follow your passion; look outside the traditional career paths

Although lawyers tend to put great emphasis on large firms and large salaries, panelists advised looking beyond those motivations. “Your law degree is the most versatile degree ever,” said Dorothy. “So don’t just look at the traditional paths to find employment. Look for the nontraditional paths, and you’ll probably find a more rewarding career.”

Yandle agreed: “Is money important? Yes, but that’s not going to keep you getting up in the morning and going into a large firm, medium firm, or small firm; it’s not going to keep you passionate. Law practice is stressful, I don’t care in what capacity you do it, you’ve got to make sure that you’re doing something that you like; don’t just be motivated by the money.”