2019 PDI Speakers: Faster, More Meaningful Progress Needed on Diversity

January 2020

The message of the two plenary speakers at the 2019 Professional Development Institute (sponsored by NALP and ALI CLE in collaboration with the PDC) was clear: The legal profession needs to do more to increase diversity and inclusion efforts, and change needs to happen faster. This need for increased awareness and renewed action extends to people with disabilities, who should be viewed as an important part of any diverse workforce.

Around 500 attendees at PDI, held Dec. 5-6 in Washington, D.C., heard presentations on numerous topics, including an emphasis on increasing diversity and improving lawyer and law student mental health and awareness. The first day kicked off with a plenary session on supporting law students with disabilities during their transition to the workplace.

American Bar Association President Judy Perry Martinez and Camille Nelson, Dean and Professor of Law at American University Washington College of Law, urged law firms to create a welcoming and inclusive environment for people with disabilities and spoke about the strengths they bring to the workplace.

"All too often, disability is overlooked in the inclusion conversation," Martinez said. "The challenges and struggles of our colleagues with disabilities are our profession's struggles."

Nelson reminded the audience that "any one of us can be rendered mentally vulnerable," or become temporarily disabled on any given day. She noted that 30% of hospital visits are underscored by mental issues. "The mind-body connection is real." Inclusion, Nelson continued, "needs to be framed out from the beginning versus retrofitting. Think about these as matters that underscore the impacts on everyone. I don't think we can afford to leave anyone behind."

Change in Mindset

While stressing the importance of diversity and inclusion to the mission of NALP, Martinez said that organizations across the legal profession should think about how people with disabilities bring unique skills to any group, including the ability to face challenges head on.

"We need them in our ranks," she said. More organizations need to foster meaningful champions that can help move disability needs forward, she added. "We have fallen short and we must do better. We have so much work to do. We have a long way to go."

Despite a challenging road ahead, Martinez applauded the more than 250 legal organizations that have signed the ABA Pledge for Change. While people with disabilities have not received a similar type of embrace in recent years as LGBT and other groups, the legal profession "is headed in the right direction, and I'm hopeful," she noted. "These types of conversations are vital and should happen more often. We can no longer afford to be in a profession that does not reflect the public it serves."

Martinez issued a call to action to everyone at PDI and the wider legal community: "Become a part of this moment. Join us as we make a difference."

Nelson added that, "we need to harness the best of all of us. Everybody needs to be involved with this."

The plenary followed a meeting of the ABA NALP Joint Advisory Council on Supporting Law Students and Lawyers, which is working together to help identify the needs of people with disabilities and assist legal organizations with best practices and shared knowledge. The advisory council held a focus group on disability issues and challenges faced by law schools and legal employers during PDI.

Reluctance to Change

The plenary speaker on the second day of PDI 2019 — Michelle Silverthorn, founder and CEO of Inclusion Nation — also talked about moving the conversation forward related to diversity and inclusion. She began by assessing the situation where it currently stands.

"This starts with us being honest. We have barely moved the needle in the legal profession. We need to be honest about what is not working," she told PDI attendees. "This is not an easy talk. It's not a fluff talk. Inclusion takes hard work."

Silverthorn told the story of Jasmine, a young Black female lawyer who got overlooked for a promotion that went to a white man named Dave. Not too long afterward Jasmine left the firm, and the profession, because of the harsh realities of not being able to move up. "We have not done the hard work to keep her, and when she leaves, we throw up our hands and ask why?" Silverthorn explained.

The business case for a more diverse workforce is compelling, she continued. Companies with the highest levels of gender and racial diversity brought in 15 times as much sales revenue vs. companies with the lowest levels. Employees that are part of a diverse workforce are better innovators, more responsive to customer needs, and have an improved sense of team collaboration, Silverthorn noted. "Diversity triggers more careful information processing absent in homogenous group. The need to diffuse the tension and the discomfort leads to better performers."

With such a strong business case, and strides in other industries, why isn't the legal profession changing? Silverthorn attributes this in part to the natural reluctance to change. "The old way is working just fine," she said organizations tell themselves. But is it? The numbers from 10 years of data tell the story, including that 10 years ago, the legal profession was 87% white and 67% men. Today it is 85% white and 65% men. A decade ago, women accounted for 47% of summer associates, and that number is now 23%. Minority women accounted for 13% of summer associates 10 years ago, and that figure now stands at 3%.

"This is the reality of our law firms. This is your chance of succeeding," she said of people like Jasmine.

Silverthorn outlined the 10 rules for inclusion to help address the lack of opportunities available in the legal profession to people of color and women. Education matters, culture matters and building organizational champions matters, she explained. "If we don't change these rules about diversity and inclusion, the same story gets told again and again," Silverthorn said.

"What if we changed the story? If we do, we don't just keep Jasmine, we keep everyone else as well. Change the rules, change the world," she said, adding that it's important to honor and celebrate our differences. "We have to make those differences matter. Change 'yes, but' to 'I'm listening.' It starts with you."

The 10 Rules for Inclusion

Rule 1: Commit to more than the business case.
Rule 2: Get real about bias.
Rule 3: Get honest about race.
Rule 4: Make diversity a priority at every level of your organization.
Rule 5: Be willing to get uncomfortable and exit your silos.
Rule 6: Expand your recruiting horizons.
Rule 7: Track who succeeds in your organization and use competencies.
Rule 8: Be a sponsor and invest in success.
Rule 9: Share your own authenticity behind the mask.
Rule 10: Design new ways to have values match the work achieved.

More on Diversity

Learn more about PDI and other NALP events on the Education & Conferences page. See NALP's annual Report on Diversity to learn more about diversity and inclusion trends in the 2019 NALP Report on Diversity in U.S. Law Firms. NALP members can log in to the Bulletin page for additional articles on diversity and inclusion.

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