The Role of Diversity, Inclusion, and Social Justice in Law

INSIGHT’s discussion with chief diversity officers of three U.S. law firms 

INSIGHT Into Diversity recently spoke with three chief diversity officers at law firms across the country to gain insight into current efforts to diversify law school enrollment and the legal field. Beyond ideas for creating a more inclusive profession, they provided advice for underrepresented students interested in studying law and discussed the role law schools play in addressing social justice issues.

CampellElizabeth A. Campbell
is a partner and the chief diversity officer at Andrews Kurth LLP in Houston, Texas, where she is responsible for the development and implementation of the firm’s strategic diversity and inclusion initiatives. She is also a frequent speaker and author on the topics of diversity, inclusion, and employment law.

PickettChristopher A. Pickett
serves as chief diversity officer with Greensfelder, Hemker, and Gale, PC in St. Louis, Mo.; he is also an officer in the firm’s litigation practice group. In addition to practicing commercial and securities litigation, he leads the firm’s efforts to recruit and retain diverse talent and foster an inclusive workplace.

EssandohVirginia G. Essandoh is the chief diversity officer at Ballard Spahr LLP in Philadelphia, Pa., where she sits on the firm-wide management committee and is responsible for developing, overseeing, and implementing diversity-related recruitment, retention, and advancement strategies and executing the firm’s diversity initiatives.

Q: Leaders in the legal community recently met to address the lack of diversity in the profession, citing several major issues: implicit bias, the dearth of diversity on executive teams, a lack of exposure to decision makers, failure to provide critical feedback, and no succession planning by leadership. What can the profession and individual firms do to address these issues and others?

Campbell: One of the things that I think is a fair observation, and a reality, is that there are deep-seated cultural barriers to diversity in organizations. … [It’s] human nature to want to work with people like yourself, to hire people like yourself. We all come to the table with unconscious biases. Overcoming them requires awareness, organizational momentum, and change, and change is difficult. So all of this, I see as deep-seated cultural resistance to change.

A good sign is that our clients are way ahead of [us], meaning because of the size of their workforces and their geographical diversity, they are already addressing issues of diversity and demographic changes, … and they’re expecting that their law firms value diversity and inclusion and reflect diversity in their teams.

There may even be another factor: that people have to see change in their own best interest or they will resent it. We call it the “WIIFM” — the “what’s in it for me?”. If individual partners, in leadership specifically, do not see the WIIFM, there’s no motivation for them to do it. So clients are huge motivators, but partners may need to see the individual benefits they would receive, the accolades and the other benefits the law firm would receive.

Pickett: Those are certainly the major factors. Law firms have long struggled with the idea of inclusion. We often speak of diversity and how much law firms work to create a diverse work environment, a team of diverse attorneys, but what has become more apparent recently … is that law firms have worked really hard at bringing on attorneys who are diverse but have done a very poor job of making them feel included.

Implicit bias is, and will likely be for a while, a fundamental problem in a lot of organizations. Diversity on executive teams is an area where I think law firms struggle because, generally, leaders of law firms are the people who have been there the longest and have been successful, and many times, that ends up being Caucasian men. Law firms have to work intentionally to solve these issues, and I think, for a very long time, they have focused specifically on making sure they have a good statistical representation of minority groups and women and [have] not thought about how to make sure they have a good statistical representation in the equity partner ranks, on the management committees, and in other governing groups.

“If you want to go into corporate law — and this is something that I think is important for minority students to understand — you need to [know] what your options will be and what you have to achieve. Know where you want to end up and make your decisions accordingly.”

Virginia G. Essandoh

I think the way the profession and firms can work to address [these issues] is … a matter of identifying people who you think are going to succeed, helping them, and really focusing on [inclusion]. I tell people that my job has two parts; it is both to increase the diversity of the firm, but even more than that, it is to make sure that we are a welcoming and inclusive organization. And inclusive doesn’t mean that you come here and have to act like everyone else. [It] means we accept you for who you are. We understand that you make people feel welcome by doing the little things. I think law firms focus on the big things, like offering the position, but they don’t focus on the little things, like who gets to go to the marketing pitch; they don’t think about who gets to go to lunch, the one-on-one lunch, the client dinner, the seminars, golfing, et cetera. Those smaller things are [some of] the reasons why people feel included and like they are part of the team. Until law firms start making that an intentional part of what they do, diversity in the higher ranks is going to consistently be an issue.

Essandoh: The factor that stands out to me, in my experience, is the education of leaders in law firms. [They] know what [diversity] looks like, but I don’t think leaders, those who are in gatekeeper roles, really understand or have the tools to foster an environment of diversity and inclusion. That’s what I see as the biggest inhibitor. And by gatekeepers, I mean those who are in charge of hiring, those who are in charge of who gets promoted, and those who hand out work assignments. I call them gatekeepers because they stand at the gate of opportunity and success for every person, and they can either block you or they can open the gate. I think that while they know about the importance of diversity, they need more tools, resources, and understanding of how to actually make inclusion happen.

If our leaders don’t know how to role model certain behaviors, then other lawyers in the firm won’t replicate what they see their leaders doing. I say that because I’ve seen the opposite happen in my own law firm. When it’s the chair of the firm or the department leader who requests a diverse candidate slate for all open positions, then other practice groups will do the same.

[The] incremental progress that the profession has made in terms of demographics, to me says that [what] we’ve been doing in the past is not working fast enough. So my philosophy at my law firm [is] to throw out the playbook and do everything different. … That’s when we start to see results, when we stop following best practices — what everyone else says you must do — and start acting based on our own understanding of the needs of our organization. Instead of doing a blanket diversity training for all your leaders, take time to understand what inhibitors are in certain offices and practice groups. … You have to focus on meeting the organization where it is and moving forward.

Q: According to a Saint Louis University law professor who monitors patterns of law student enrollment, the decrease in white students enrolling in law schools is leading to an increase in the number of law students from underrepresented groups. Considering the high cost of attending law school and the flat legal job market, how would you advise students from these groups who are interested in studying law? 

Campbell: I’m going to begin by not necessarily accepting the predicate, that the decrease in white students automatically means people from disadvantaged backgrounds will increase; I don’t. But I advise people to go to law school who want to be lawyers. We have a very special profession, meaning there are things lawyers can do that other professions cannot do, and if your strength and competency is in analytical thinking and communication — verbal and written — and if you have a passion to solve problems and help others, then law school is an excellent choice for you. And that’s … without regard to the demographic group you fall in, even with the job market being flat. … For the most part, there’s always room for lawyers, and there’s always room in the market for talented lawyers.

“I think lawyers have an obligation to work for the good of the communities in which they live. That can start in law school. … I think millennials in particular have an appreciation for and desire to contribute.”

Elizabeth A. Campbell

Back in the day, when costs weren’t as high and the job market was rich, you could go to law school, get a job, and then decide whether you really wanted to practice law; you could be more casual about it. When people ask me, “Should I go to law school, or should I go to graduate school,” I say, “Well, what do you want to do?” People who go to law school should be people who want to practice law. If you’re making a critical decision and money, time, and the job market matter, then you should do it based on what you want to do. If you want to practice law, you have to go to law school.

I would not discourage — I actually encourage — people to study law and do [their] best. We’re a competitive profession, but you can come out with all kinds of options, even in a flat market. That includes being flexible from a geography standpoint and in terms of whether you work in the private, public, or nonprofit sector. I’m an advocate for people who want to be lawyers. We need good lawyers.

Pickett: Most importantly … have a plan. If [you] want to apply to and attend law school, really think through what that means and what you’re going to be getting. Younger people who are going into law school think of it as a way to get a potentially high-paying job, but the legal job market is relatively flat and certainly as it relates to jobs that might be considered higher paying is flat. So if [you are] going to go to law school — and this is true for minorities, first-generation, and low-income students because they may [have] to take out more loans — you want to make sure you have considered what employment will look like when you exit and, to the extent it’s possible, what type of a career you are looking for.

One of the advantages of law school, and one reason why I think it is an unbelievably positive graduate path, is it provides an opportunity to work in a number of different industries, in a number of different ways. … But because it’s expensive and the traditional legal market is what it is, I think it’s important for all students to think about what their plan and their career options are going to be, so that if [they decide to] make that investment, they get the return they expect.

Essandoh: First, I don’t agree that the decrease in white students will increase the admission of underrepresented students. To me, that says that only if an open spot is taken from a white student will a student of color get [into law school]. … With that being said, I would ask [students] why they have an interest in law. I always tell people that, to me, it’s the best education you can get because of how it teaches you to think logically. Also, it’s an empowering education. It gives you the ability to protect the rights of others and yourself. … I also think a law degree is very versatile.

I never formally practiced law. In law school, I [knew] what I wanted to do with my degree. I wanted to use it more in a business and management aspect. So I was able to put that education to work, and it opened doors for me. Now I advise students who are interested in pursuing law … to at least have a good understanding of what they want to do with that education. If you want to go into corporate law — and this is something that I think is important for minority students to understand — you need to [know] what your options will be and what you have to achieve. If you want to work for a big law firm, you need to understand where your class rank needs to be and what level of school you need to attend, because if that’s your primary goal and you make one misstep and miss that opportunity, you may be in big trouble in terms of your career. Know where you want to end up and make your decisions accordingly.

Q: With growing concern over issues of social justice by college students, do you think it’s important for law schools to educate students in this area and provide more opportunities to engage in public interest work? Beyond professional development, should law schools focus on the ethical development of students?

Campbell: Yes and yes. I think lawyers have an obligation to work for the good of the communities in which they live. That can start in law school. I remember doing taxes, for example; that was my give back. Now most law schools offer opportunities to work with individuals who may not be able to afford an attorney. These law school programs are vital to communities. I think millennials in particular have an appreciation for and desire to contribute.

When I went to law school, it was mostly [focused on] academics. Law school taught me how to think critically and how to communicate, but the opportunities to give back to the community were more limited than they are today. I think law schools are doing a great job of providing these opportunities and therefore underscoring the important role lawyers play. … Also, many state bar associations have requirements or expectations on the number of pro-bono hours [attorneys must complete].

I think the second part of the question is similar. We have to understand the ethical obligations we have. … But there are lawyers who lose their way for one reason or another and venture into gray areas. There’s professional responsibility; most of us understand that. But it goes one level deeper to really understanding the quagmires lawyers might find themselves in, and it should start in law school. Law schools’ role is to prepare [students] for the profession, for practicing law. [However], I believe they should continue to focus on personal and ethical development, too.

Pickett: [My] answer is a resounding “yes.” … I think law schools are becoming more engaged from the social justice perspective. In the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, there have recently been articles about Saint Louis University’s law students assisting with some of the issues in Ferguson, and I think that’s something you see more and more.

“Diversity on executive teams is an area where I think law firms struggle because, generally, leaders of law firms are the people who have been there the longest and have been successful, and many times, that ends up being Caucasian men.”

Christopher A. Pickett

I will always believe that law schools should make every effort to expose their students to all parts of the profession, and I think a large part of that is the social justice side, whether it be through clinics or placements with organizations that do that type of work. I think you might end up with a different pool of law students … if [your] school is a very strong proponent of a social justice line of education.

Law schools should continue focusing on professional development. I think they probably should focus on ethical development, too. [At most schools], students are required to take a professional responsibility course or some form of an ethics course. I would suggest that there needs to be a little bit more of that, not because students come out [unethical], but because it is important to understand, and have it driven home consistently, how important ethics are within this profession.

Essandoh: Law schools are creating lawyers who are supposed to be agents of social justice, who are supposed to represent fairness and equality in everything they do, no matter if they go into the private or public sector. So I think there should be some sort of education around social justice issues incorporated into every course. I think there’s a way to talk about the issues … so that law students can understand all sides and learn how to communicate around [that].

I do think it’s important [for law schools to offer opportunities for public interest work]. Whether it’s for law students to see where their passions lie or where their passions don’t lie. Often, law students — especially those from underrepresented groups — go into law school or the profession thinking, “I’m going to be this agent of social change.” … I see this on the law firm side; law students will say, “I feel such a strong desire, such a strong need, to participate in public interest work,” so they shy away from the big corporate law firm path, not recognizing that there are opportunities to do public interest and pro-bono work around those same social justice issues. … A lot of law students are interested in it. I think it’s important for schools to continue to provide opportunities to do that type of work.

I don’t think [law schools should focus on the ethical development of their students], because it’s so subjective. I don’t think you can teach that. We bring who we are, we bring our filters, we bring our backgrounds and perspectives to the profession, and that is part of what makes [our] work so important. Although, if you agree with the premise that law schools should incorporate social justice issues into legal education, that brings in different dynamics and perspectives that could help with the morals and ethics that are necessary for lawyers.

Q: The University of Arizona’s James E. Rogers College of Law recently began accepting the GRE in lieu of the LSAT with hopes of increasing student diversity, since the GRE is said to be more accessible with more frequent test dates. This move led the Law School Admission Council to consider revoking the college’s membership. Do you agree that this change could help increase student diversity, and do you think it could affect the credibility of the profession?

Campbell: Candidly, I’ve never taken the GRE, so I have not studied its reliability in terms of predicting success in law school. I do know from what I’ve read that both the SAT and the LSAT sometimes have inherent biases, so I think the measure [that should be considered] is the extent to which these standardized tests accurately predict the likelihood of students’ success in law school. … I’m not in the position to make that assessment on the GRE, but … I don’t know why [minority and underrepresented students] would have a greater advantage than others; the GRE is more accessible to everybody.

One thing I am clear on: I do not at all think it would jeopardize the credibility of the profession, because what matters is how well students perform through law school, if they graduate, and how well they do on the bar exam. … The naysayers who say that what you’re doing is lowering admission standards need to understand that once you get into law school, it doesn’t matter how you got there — whether you got there on legacy, grades, class rank, any of that — you have to [finish]; everybody takes the required classes, the graduation standard is what it is, and passing the bar is what it is. So I do not see how it could affect the credibility of the profession. We have a rigorous education and licensure requirement.

Pickett: I think there’s a problem when the LSAT is only offered such a few number of dates. That always makes it difficult, and it certainly makes it difficult for people who may be working full time or have other issues that might limit their ability to get to sites to take the test. So I think any time you’re going to accept an examination that’s offered almost every day, that has a chance of at least increasing the population of those who are able to take the test, which should increase the general population of people who will have access to law school.

As it relates to demographics, I think it will likely have more of a socioeconomic impact than one necessarily related to race or gender. In my mind, it’s those who have less money — who are maybe working full time to support themselves and their families — who have a more difficult time appearing at a specific date to take the LSAT. Now they would have more options.

I don’t think taking the LSAT means that somebody is or is not ready to go to law school. It’s like any other standardized test; it is a measure of someone’s ability, or potential ability, to do something. … Ultimately, the credibility of the profession is significantly more impacted by law schools themselves, the classes that are taught, the professors who are doing the teaching, and the other students. I don’t think the GRE will have any impact on the credibility of the profession. But I do think [accepting the GRE] is positive because it will provide access for those who might not have otherwise had access [to law school].

Essandoh: Does that lessen the credibility of the profession? I tend to say yes. My gut reaction is that the LSAT is the standard we use for lawyers; it measures logical reasoning. I know the GRE does have a portion [focused on] that, but I think the LSAT and its logical reasoning focus — how it has essay questions — is tried and true, and I’m not comfortable with the idea of changing entrance standards. I don’t think it’s necessary. Part of me thinks it lessens the criteria for law school admission. And you don’t have to lessen or decrease the standards for law school admission.

The GRE opens up so many different opportunities; you can go into all different areas. I guess if law is now part of that, I think generally it’s going to open up opportunities for everyone. If it’s going to increase opportunities for everyone, then that ultimately means it’s going to open up more opportunities for diverse students as well. I don’t have a firm view on that, [but] it’s possible.●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity.