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The Case for Embracing Diversity and Inclusion In Our Profession

We are in the midst of a global pandemic, hunkered down at home trying to be healthy and safe. With executive, stay-at-home orders in place, we have - at last - time for reflection, to walk out onto the balcony, take the long view, step back and ponder big questions. One of those big questions pertains to the diversity of our profession and the relationships we have with persons from different backgrounds, races and cultures. As members of that profession are we doing enough to strengthen opportunities for all, to model tolerance and understanding of differences, and to remove barriers for advancement and growth for members of minority and culturally diverse communities? I am confident we can do better. I am equally confident there is more we can do to promote a vibrant, rich, diverse, welcoming and inclusive profession for all. Despite our progress to date, there remains a long way to go. This is a topic of critical importance to the future of the Bar in general and the ADR Section in particular. The demographics of the country are changing. So are the demographics of the Bar. The time to make progress is now. As a member of the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force of the ADR Section, co-chaired by Betty Widgeon and Lee Hornberger, I have been thinking a lot about this topic. I write to present the case for why you, my friends and colleagues, should use this time to commit yourself and embrace the process.

  1. It’s the right thing to do: We are more alike than different. Our genes are 99% the same. We’re all earthlings, inhabitants of the same planet, third rock from the Sun. Our planet is in danger like never before. We face these dangers together. To overcome these threats, many of which are existential, we must all pull together. It takes every one of us. We can’t afford to ignore the contributions and strengths of any person or group regardless of race, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation, condition of disability or other protected characteristic. Accordingly, we have a duty to every person who shares our world to see to it they have every opportunity to contribute to the limits of their potential. We must all be part of the effort to establish a more just and equitable society within a more promising and inclusive future. Black, brown, yellow, red, white. Martin Luther King, Jr., taught us these are skin colors not measures of our character. We need one another if we are to prevail over climate change, ensure clean air to breath, clean water to drink, bring peace to a world in tumult, and produce enough food that no one goes hungry. We need everyone’s efforts in the search for a cure for the COVID-19 pandemic, cancer, Alzheimer’s, HIV/AIDS, heart disease, etc.

  2. Living up to the American Ideal: In this country everyone is entitled to equality before the law. Each and every one of us is entitled to an equal opportunity and equal chance to enjoy the benefits of the American Dream. Every person should be able to live up to their true and full potential. That’s the American ideal. Since the post-Civil War Amendments to the United States Constitution, the laws of the United States guarantee due process and equal protection to everyone. These principles are central to our democracy and the democratic values on which our system of government rests. As lawyers, our job is to enforce the rule of law in society. We speak for the voiceless. We even the playing field. We champion everyone deserving of equal treatment. Nothing can tear the fabric of our cohesion or corrode the body politic more insidiously than perceptions that things are unfair, unequal and discriminatory. Think about all the societies torn apart by their differences, where force is used to gain objectives. Not so much in the United States, where the courts have been a venue to ensure that the majority rules but the minority has rights. As lawyers it is our job to guard this American ideal. In a sense we are the first line keeping the peace. The rule of law prevents the social fabric from ripping to shreds. In order to appreciate the true meaning of equal rights, equal justice, and equal opportunity for all, we must get to know, become familiar with and connected to members of diverse communities. That can’t happen in our segregated world unless we actively do something about it. It’s on us. You and me.

  3. Living Up to Our Ideals as Lawyers: The SBM is committed to diversity and inclusion. The Bar has adopted a Diversity Pledge that it promotes among lawyers. When we pay our dues to the State Bar, we adopt the goal of improving diversity and inclusion. If you’re a member of the ADR Section, the Section has itself committed to the Pledge as have most other Sections. Many of our members have done so individually, as well. We are a self-governing organization. As such, it is our responsibility to live up to our own ideals.

  4. Adhering to the Code of Professional Responsibility: Rule 6.5 of the Michigan Rules of Professional Conduct require that we lawyers treat everyone with courtesy and respect. The rule prohibits treating anyone discourteously or disrespectfully because of race, gender, or other protected personal characteristic. We are required equally to enforce these rules with our subordinates and staff. This is not theoretical. This is our Self-imposed. We are expected to live up to it and we should.

  5. Growth and Development as Individuals: As I grew up, I was taught and came to believe this nation was built by immigrants, a great melting pot. I still believe in that ideal. Today we are a richly diverse, multicultural nation with many cultures, languages, sub-cultures and colors. There is strength in that diversity. E Pluribus Unum. If we do not reach out to others in the diverse communities that surround us, we do not learn from the lives of others, or develop and expand our awareness from diverse experiences. We are ignorant of the challenges they’ve had to overcome, the discrimination they’ve faced. Diversity and inclusion contribute to our own personal growth and development. It enhances the quality of our lives, makes us stronger as individuals and enriches the world in which we live.

  6. Enlightened Self-Interest #1: Diversity and inclusion are good for business. Many corporations, especially in the top 500, require that the law firms which do their legal work are themselves committed to diversity and inclusion, with minority partners treated fairly and equally. If you aspire to represent some of the largest and best corporate clients in America, you must yourself be committed to diversity and inclusion and show it in your law practice.

  7. Enlightened Self-Interest #2: Lawyers are professionals. For a substantial majority, that has a business aspect. Lawyers and mediators must earn fees to cover the expense of running their offices. Their practices must thrive if they are to feed themselves and their families. To thrive, law practices require new and repeat clients in need of legal work and advice. Much of that work comes from referrals, generally from other lawyers. In urban areas like Detroit, Flint, Benton Harbor, Southfield, there are majority minority communities. Isolation in a white world insulates white lawyers from the needs and interests of these communities. If lawyers commit to diversity and inclusion, to make friends, build connections, reach out, they are likely to expand their referral sources, gain new business, extend their market and develop new business opportunities.

  8. Enlightened Self-Interest #3: Many lawyers work for corporations, government agencies or non-profits. There are strong anti-discrimination laws applicable to each. Lawyers who work in these settings are prohibited from discriminating. Treating minorities differently, failing to treat minorities with respect, and making insensitive racially tinged remarks can get the entity sued for discrimination, harassment or retaliation. It can also get the individual sued and fired or both. Accordingly, committing to a diverse and inclusive world increases justice for all, improves morale, increases productivity, protects our employers from liability and ourselves from discipline or discharge.

At this time when you’re home, unable perhaps to visit the office, I urge you to seize the opportunity to reflect on the big questions. I invite you to consider how you, too, can make this profession of which we are all so proud more diverse, more welcoming, more inclusive.

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