How can lawyers be better allies? ABA presidents share their advice

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Five current and former ABA presidents joined Judge Adrienne C. Nelson to talk about effective ways to encourage diversity, equity and inclusion. Photo provided by the ABA Health Law Section.

Several leaders of the ABA came together Thursday to discuss how lawyers can be better allies and encourage and support diversity in the workplace.

Judge Adrienne C. Nelson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon, who is chair of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisory Council, moderated “Fireside Chat With Past, Present and Future ABA Presidents: Discussing How the Legal Profession and the ABA Can Be Effective Allies for Diversity.” President Deborah Enix-Ross, President-Elect Mary Smith and past Presidents James Silkenat, Paulette Brown and Judy Perry Martinez joined her for the webinar.

Brown, who was the chief diversity officer at Locke Lord before starting coaching company MindSetPower in Charleston, South Carolina, spoke to the audience about how she approached diversity with her colleagues. Her mantra, she said, has always been “inclusion does not mean exclusion.”

“That’s the message you have to deliver in order to get buy-in,” said Brown, the first woman of color to serve as president of the ABA. “You’re not trying to kick anybody out. You’re trying to have people understand that everyone has not been given the same basic tools that others have been given.”

To help accomplish this, Brown likes to lead lawyers in the “privilege walk.” During this exercise, she’ll ask them several questions, such as: Did your parents go to college? Did you attend a top-tier law school? What is your race, or do you belong to a LGBTQ group? Participants are asked to take steps forward or back based on their responses.

“You give someone something that is visual, and then you talk about it afterward and what it means,” Brown said. “I had someone who was a Vietnamese immigrant who was all the way at the back of the room and [talked] about what that meant and how that made that particular person feel.”

“Sharing those thoughts with other people, it gave them a greater appreciation,” she added.

The panel encouraged the audience to find allies, which are typically characterized as those who advocate for people who are part of a group that is different than theirs. They also discussed what makes allies most effective.

“There are a number of factors involved, but maybe most important is a passion for the issues involved, a passion for helping someone,” said Silkenat, who was previously a partner at Sullivan & Worcester in New York. “Really being committed and willing to put yourself on the line for an issue or a person is what makes a difference here.”

The “root of allyship is mutual respect and collaboration,” added Smith, vice chair and partner at the Veng Group in Chicago. She will be the first Native American woman to become president of the ABA at the close of the 2023 ABA Annual Meeting in August.

“You have to have knowledge, you have to learn, you have to listen, and underlying all of it is mutual respect,” Smith said.

Enix-Ross spoke about the best approaches for asking a colleague to provide guidance or mentorship. She said she would rather talk with law students or young lawyers for 15 minutes over Zoom than receive a lengthy email from them. She also appreciates when they come prepared with specific questions.

“If someone takes the time to reach out to me, I am going to do my best to respond to them and try to give them what they need,” said Enix-Ross, senior adviser to the International Dispute Resolution Group at Debevoise & Plimpton in New York City. “When I give you those 15 minutes, come prepared with what it is you would like to know.”

Martinez, of counsel at Simon, Peragine, Smith & Redfearn in New Orleans, noted that experienced lawyers can also connect colleagues who they think will be beneficial to each other.

“I spend a lot of time these days connecting people,” Martinez said. “It’s also about us stepping back and stepping away and letting others have the experience of mentoring, of being a coach, of being an ally, because we have to pass these skills down to other generations.”

She added that it’s important to ask each lawyer whether they’re interested in connecting ahead of time and to follow up a few months later to see whether the connection was helpful.

Nelson noted she has participated on many panels on diversity and inclusion, and important questions have been raised after the 2020 death of George Floyd about how lawyers can avoid being performative and instead become true, active allies.

“It would be helpful for the audience to hear your thoughts about this,” Nelson said. “With all of the people who made statements … was there any follow-up? Was there any meaningful change? If there was, where was it? If not, how do you nudge people or push people to do it?”

Smith pointed out that lawyers and law firms can look to the ABA—which focuses on eliminating bias and enhancing diversity in the legal profession and justice system through Goal III—as a vital organizational ally.

She said lawyers can also work as allies by helping ABA entities draft resolutions on issues that the association can lobby on and support when needed. As one example, the ABA adopted in 2021 a resolution that urges lawyers to devote at least 20 hours each year to efforts that promote diversity, equity and inclusion in the legal profession.

In her work, Brown said she often asks lawyers to write down something that they will commit to doing within the next 30 days to advance allyship in connection with diversity, equity and inclusion. She encourages them to share their commitment with someone else, who can then hold them accountable.

Nelson’s final question to the panel focused on how lawyers—in the current climate—can stay focused on this work while also taking care of themselves.

“I think we do exactly that, Judge Nelson,” Enix-Ross said. “It’s hard work. It can be exhausting. It can feel like two steps forward and one step back. … But you do have to take care of yourself. We cannot fight every battle, everywhere, all at once.”

“I love Paulette’s ‘What are you going to do in the next 30 days?’” she added. “That’s the challenge. Everybody who is watching us, take one thing that you’re going to do in the next 30 days and tell someone what that is, and then just do that. Then you will feel like you are making some progress. That will maybe embolden you, strengthen you and encourage you.”

The Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisory Council, through a collaboration between the ABA Health Law Section and Section of Environment, Energy and Resources, presented the Thursday webinar. The entire program can be viewed here.

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