DEI’s Efforts Can Help Diverse Lawyers Overcome the Paradox of Perfection

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Perfection is not attainable.

Yet people of color often face a paradox. They are expected to be perfect. When they fail to meet this unattainable standard, they are far more likely to be left behind.

This challenge also permeates law firms, as evidenced by numerous interviews MLA recruiters recently conducted with Am Law 200 associates of color.

The burden on lawyers of color to be perfect is enormous. There is a pressure never to appear too angry, too excitable, too anything, in order to avoid being stereotyped. And there is no easy solution.

To begin with, however, law firms should focus on a DEI strategy that focuses on embedding a commitment to DEI throughout the organization. DEI does not work when in a silo. This requires the active participation of leaders and stakeholders with incentives such as billable hour credit.

Addressing the long-term impact of exclusion in law firms will require a multi-pronged approach, as this issue permeates all aspects of the legal industry, beginning with law school, continuing through the partner’s experience and, finally, the composition of the partnership.

At Davis Wright Tremaine, for example, the company has focused its strategy, initiatives and efforts on four pillars: community (fostering an inclusive culture), growth (ensuring equity in access to opportunity), education (raising individual and collective consciousness) and engagement (collaborating with external stakeholders ).

The pressure mounts early

For avocados of color, the tightrope tightening starts early. There is significant overlap between lawyers of color and those who are first-generation law students. First-generation students often don’t have equitable access to information, long before they even consider taking the LSAT.

These inequalities lead to disparate results. For example, the average LSAT score for black applicants in 2016-2017 was 142, while it was 153 for their white and Asian peers, which impacted law school admissions. This is problematic given that the LSAT is not a reliable predictor of success in law school (or success in practice).

Once in law school, significant information gaps continue to occur. For example, the importance of 1L grades in the job search process and the weird dance of campus interviews are often foreign concepts to first-generation college students.

By ensuring fairness in access to information, we can level the playing field for students considering law and for those heading to law school. Many law firms have invested in these efforts, but we need to do more.

The lack of partnership-level representation poses another significant challenge for lawyers of color, especially early-career partners seeking mentorship and guidance. Law firms are still predominantly white and male. Only 9% of partners in multi-level law firms are people of color and only 2% are black (and less than 1% are black women).

While the representation of associates of color has continued to rise, the rise to partnership continues to be elusive for people of color. In 2019, 24% of law firm departures were lawyers of color. This figure was up from 22% in 2018 and was the highest figure to date.

No benefit of the doubt

These representation challenges have a significant impact on lawyers of color. One of these impacts is the paradox of perfection. “I don’t get the same benefit of the doubt on projects or if I say I’m busy,” a black associate told Us in an interview.

There is a corresponding pressure to worry about how his individual actions may be seen as representing a broader demographic. An IP partner at an AmLaw 200 firm told us, “I feel a ton of responsibility to ‘not mess it up’ for Latino or Latino partners who come into my firm after me. I fear that if I fail, the company will be reluctant to hire people who look like me later.

The challenges continue with the practice of law in several ways. First, the lack of representation results in a feeling of isolation. “I’m so aware that I’m the only black man on my team. When the conversation at a meeting turned to rap music, everyone turned and looked at me, as the resident expert,” a partner at an AmLaw 20 firm told us.

He also said that although he knew he deserved to be in his company and was more than capable of doing the job, he was worried about being seen as a “diversity employee”, creating additional pressure to be “perfect”.

This also carries over to other processes in a law firm. For example, attorneys of color feel tokenized when they’re only asked to interview people from their demographic background, but rarely interview other candidates.

“I knew I was going to be featured as a face of diversity on the website, but I was still disappointed when it happened,” a partner at an AmLaw 50 firm told us.

A partner at an AmLaw 100 firm said: “I have been asked to participate in matters in a way that highlights the fact that I am diverse, rather than that I have applicable skills, which which sometimes gives the impression that my value is in my diversity, not my competence as a lawyer.

Some Solutions

To facilitate equal access, law firms may consider establishing formal referral programs to establish referral relationships. Organically, these relationships are often built on an affinity bias, which is why they form less often for underrepresented populations. However, these relationships can be built and nurtured, but it takes effort and real commitment from strong leadership.

To reduce feelings of isolation, we must continue to build community. Most law firms have adopted affinity groups. Additionally, DEI efforts at the office level can be used to strengthen relationships and make people feel welcome. This is especially critical in our hybrid world where efforts to foster collaboration and respect are essential to inclusion and must be done much more intentionally than before.

In the long term, the solution is simple: representation. Representation is the antidote to tokenization. If we want to tackle the paradox of perfection, we need our organizations to reflect our society as a whole and the communities we serve.

This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.

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Author Information

Yusuf Zakir is Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Davis Wright Tremaine.

Kate Reder Sheikh is a partner in Major’s Associate Practice Group, Lindsey & Africa covering the San Francisco Bay Area and Colorado.

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