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I was elected to chair the board of directors for the Philadelphia Diversity Law Group at about the same time the PDLG decided to begin writing a column on diversity for The Legal Intelligencer. As some of you may know, the PDLG is a group of Philadelphia-area law firms and corporate law offices that have come together to increase the level of diversity in their offices and in the Philadelphia legal community at large. This column gives the PDLG the opportunity to discuss diversity-related issues as an organization, and we appreciate that opportunity, since an important part of our mission is to speak out in favor of inclusive workplaces. Writing this first column gave me a chance to reflect on my own history with diversity and how the lessons I learned will affect what I hope to accomplish through working with my colleagues on the PDLG’s board. For me personally, as is probably the case for many other board members, working with the PDLG to promote diversity initiatives is another step in a journey that began a long time ago. As I tried to figure out what to say in this column, I kept coming back to my first experience as a diversity “advocate” some 30 years ago, when I was a freshman at Haverford College. In the spring of 1977, there had been protests about the lack of diversity on campus. In response to these protests, the college undertook a series of efforts designed to increase the level of diversity in the administration and faculty, and to improve minority student recruiting. (Today, approximately 30 percent of Haverford’s students are members of minority groups, but the percentage was much smaller when I was a student.) By the time my class arrived in the fall of 1977, diversity was a hot topic on campus. I was elected to the college’s student council and wound up at a retreat with several members of the administration and faculty. As it turned out, I was the only minority student there – in fact, I may have been the only person of color there, period. The group’s talk turned to diversity, and the intensity of our discussion increased. I recall spending a good part of the meeting debating the value of a more diverse campus with faculty members who were clearly unhappy with the direction the college was taking. I’d like to tell you that I was exhilarated by the discussion, but the truth is I was worn out and discouraged by the experience – I just wanted to go back to my dorm. How I felt must have been obvious, because before I could leave, the college’s director of admissions, Bill Ambler, stopped me. I had never met Ambler before, and he had said little during the discussion. Ambler told me that he’d been impressed with how I had handled myself at the meeting, and that he’d hoped the experience hadn’t soured me on the college. Over the next three years, I worked as a tour guide and office “host” for the admissions office. After graduating, I worked for Ambler at the college as the assistant director responsible for minority recruiting for three years before I left for law school. Ambler was a wonderful mentor and one of the most decent human beings I have ever met. And I have never met anyone more committed to the ideal that a college is best served by making room for many different voices, not just a chosen few. As I look back, that meeting taught me two important things about discussing diversity with others. The first is that if you’re the only black person in the room and the subject of race comes up, everyone else in the room is going to expect you to speak. I’ve come to believe that people of color do better when we embrace that expectation and use it as an opportunity to further our common interests as minority professionals. I’ll admit that there have been times in my life when I resented being treated as a spokesperson for an entire race every time the subject of diversity came up. I also have to admit that I get discouraged when I think about how often discussions about diversity among members of our profession today sound just like discussions I participated in 30 years ago. But I’ve come to understand that as a partner of color at a majority-owned law firm, speaking up is one of the things I owe the next generation of minority lawyers, just as more senior lawyers in the minority community were always there for me. Every partner of color at firms and all of the minority in-house lawyers I know feel the same way. Participating in groups like the PDLG gives people like us the chance to turn our commitment into action. The second lesson the meeting taught me was that diversity supporters are not limited to members of minority groups or to one gender. Every organization I’ve worked in has had people who, like my former boss, are listening and want to be part of the solution. The commitment these folks have to furthering the cause of diversity is genuine, and organizations like the PDLG provide them with concrete ways to demonstrate their support as well. We will all need one another if we are going to make any meaningful progress on diversity. I learned a long time ago that if diversity efforts are ever to succeed within an organization, they need broad support. This is nowhere more true than in a law firm, where every partner, regardless of his or her background, can make a difference in the lives and careers of diverse associates. Even small gestures, like taking a few minutes to encourage a younger colleague not to withdraw after a disappointment, can make a huge difference. It’s important to appreciate that everyone in an organization is capable of contributing to diversity efforts and to encourage everyone to participate, because all of us have something unique and potentially valuable to offer. I intend to put these lessons to work in my role as the chairman of the PDLG’s board. One of the reasons I was proud to be elected chairman is that our group provides a rare venue for members of our legal community, many of them competitors in the marketplace, to come together in pursuit of a common purpose. We now have members from more than 30 law firms and corporate law offices. Each has committed itself to developing an inclusive workplace, and to supporting each other in our diversity efforts. Collectively, we can be an incubator for new ideas about and approaches to diversity and a resource for lawyers and law students who are looking for information and expertise. I believe that we are making progress, but the pace sometimes seems slow and there is much more to do. We invite other firms to join our fellowship. If you would like more information about the PDLG and its programs you can access our Web site at www.philadiversitylaw.org. In the meantime, we hope to earn your confidence through this column, our programming and other contributions to Philadelphia’s legal community. We will use this space as a platform to address issues or controversies that can affect diversification strategies. It also will provide a space for our board members to make personal contributions to the growing professional literature surrounding workplace diversity in the legal profession. As I said earlier, for some of us, speaking out on diversity issues is not just a choice, but also a requirement driven by conscience. But because of organizations like the PDLG, we are no longer the only voices in the room. A chorus of voices speaking in favor of this important objective is what we’re hoping to encourage. This article was written in collaboration with the Philadelphia Diversity Law Group. Vernon Francis is a litigation partner in Dechert’s Philadelphia office. He is the current chairman of the Philadelphia Diversity Law Group’s board of directors.

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