Online Exclusive: ABA President-Elect Shares More Insights

INSIGHT Into Diversity spoke with Paulette Brown, president-elect of the American Bar Association, for our July/August issue. In this online-only portion of the conversation, she discusses unconscious bias and how those in the law profession can overcome it.

What skills do you believe the lawyers of tomorrow will require in order to address the needs of, and the complex issues faced by, diverse clients?

Well, I believe they will really have to be open and creative in their thinking; they will have to think about who is not in their in-group, and think about why they hire diverse lawyers in the first place — because they think they’re eminently qualified to do the job. They should not make assumptions that, because of who they are, [minority candidates are less competent], and lawyers should not presume that they are there because of some affirmative action program.

I think they have to take and understand the IAT test, which measures unconscious bias. Because when you know you have biases, you can stop some bad behaviors. We’re living in a more and more diverse society, and the truth of the matter is that if you don’t keep up and become more inclusive, then you’re going to lose out. Not only that, but younger lawyers who are not considered “diverse,” they too will tell you that they want a diverse and inclusive environment because, to them, that is reflective of the progressiveness of the law firm.

As someone who advocates for hiring more women and minority lawyers, what do you think it will take to attract more diverse students to law school, as there has been a decline in minority enrollment in recent years?

African Americans are [one of] the least represented groups in legal institutions. People always talk about how many lawyers there are, but we also know that there are so many people who don’t have lawyers. So, in all parts of the country there aren’t too many lawyers. As we talk about that, I think we also need to send the message that there are not enough diverse lawyers. And I don’t limit it to just lawyers of color; it’s LGBTQ lawyers and lawyers with, as I call it, various levels of ability, rather than disability. So I think that when we discuss enrollment in law schools, we still have to be extra encouraging and let people know that when people talk about how there are too many lawyers, that statistic doesn’t include [diverse lawyers].

I spoke with a young African American lady at a law school in February and she told me how everyone she knew, except her parents, tried to discourage her from going to law school because they said there are too many lawyers. It’s because of what’s promoted. So you hear those kinds of stories, but nevertheless, even with that, you still have a serious paucity of diverse individuals wanting to go to law school, or who are in law school. And I just don’t think that they should buy into the idea that there are too many lawyers, because there are not enough diverse lawyers.

Tell me about the diversity training you conducted for Edwards Wildman Palmer [before the firm merged with Locke Lord]. What are some skills that you taught in these sessions?

Before we merged, I did training in all of our offices — except Hong Kong and Turkey — and I trained [everyone from] partners to file clerks and everybody in between. The training was different based on who was participating, and it was very in-depth. We talked a lot about implicit bias. Everybody took at least two of the IAT tests — sometimes before the training, sometimes after — and I made adjustments as we went along, because one size does not fit all. I learned from each of the trainings about what people are receptive to, what resonates with them, and how you can get through to them.

In at least one location, we actually didn’t get beyond the section on women. That was with an office outside of the United States, but there was a great deal of debate on what’s called maternal law bias and also leniency bias. [Male partners at this particular firm] were making decisions for women, saying basically, “We’re doing them a favor by not giving them things that are too complicated because we know they have a family and it’s just too hard for them.” So I said, “Who are you to decide that?” Or they said, “She just came back from maternity leave, we don’t want to overwhelm her; it wouldn’t be fair to give her this complex piece of litigation.”

The reassuring thing was that after that training, at least one partner said to me that with regard to a woman returning from maternity leave, he had decided that maybe she shouldn’t work on a big litigation case — although she had been working on it before she left — and he was telling her that he felt bad, [that he wasn’t] going to force her to do this after just coming back to work. But then he said, “Oh that’s wrong. I’m going to ask her if she wants to do it.” So fortunately, the training had an impact because his first inclination was to think that she couldn’t do it, or would not want to do it, and he was totally wrong — she did want to continue working on it. But the good thing is that he went back and asked her.