The happiest time of my professional life to date was my tenure on the Supreme Court of Georgia. There are many reasons for this, but the most important among them lay not in the court’s many traditions and history, and still less in the status and meager salary that comes with being a justice. Rather, I was overjoyed by the companionship I found among my colleagues, arrayed as they were in all their robust diversity.
Before arriving at those hallowed halls, for instance, I didn’t really understand most of the men who were there, with their love of hunting, fishing, golf, Georgia football, God and country. And I’m sure most of them looked at me askance, a 36-year-old black woman judge with a love for vintage clothes, in-line skating, old movies, children, God and country. But during my years on the court I learned what is now obvious: diversity makes our lives richer, while sameness stifles growth.
There was very little diversity when I first arrived on the court in 1992. But by the time I retired 17 years later, that had changed for the better, even though it’s clear that there is still, as they say, a ways to go.
WHY DIVERSITY IMPROVES THE COURTS
Diversity of judicial philosophy, professional service and life experience, as well as that of race, gender and ethnicity, is necessary to build a great court. If every judge on a court is the same, or even similar, to every other, the institution as a whole can’t be strong.
Why? Because diversity enhances a court’s intellectual rigor, as each judge must measure her opinions against those of her colleagues, who approach judging from varied angles, often coming to different conclusions about the law’s requirements and how they should be interpreted and expressed.
Also, a bench that is reflective of the people it serves reaches decisions in tune with the communities around it, inspiring greater public confidence. People seem to understand why it’s important to have diverse juries. We need to feel the same about our gatekeepers of justice.
WHY DIVERSITY IMPROVES LAW FIRMS
Since I left the bench and moved on to private practice, I’ve also come to appreciate diversity in this very different setting. Here are some of the many things I have observed:
• Diversity reduces conflict and improves morale.
Have you ever walked into a meeting where you were the only member of your race? Or gender? Did you feel uncomfortable? Were you afraid to give voice to your opinion? Did you feel invisible or excluded? We’ve all been there and felt that, no matter whether we were the only one of a kind or not.
But imagine what that feels like when you are. Diversity, oddly, creates an equal footing. If there are people in the room from all types of backgrounds, then it’s 10 working together instead of nine of like mind and one odd-person-out. Meaningful inclusion can only serve to elevate your work attitude, your self-respect, and the way your colleagues respond to you.
• Diversity increases productivity: colleagues learn from the different perspectives of people from different backgrounds.
People of different backgrounds coming together provide a wealth of varied skills and experiences. It follows that a firm with a richer knowledge base has an advantage over a homogenous one. With diversity on its side, a law firm will find working solutions in less time.
But it’s not just about race, gender, religion or sexual orientation. It’s also about socioeconomic, geographic and educational diversity. Obviously, men and women, straight and LGBT attorneys can innately look at things from a unique slant, and each can offer unique perspectives that might not be patently obvious to the others.
But where you grew up and your access to financial resources, as well as where you went to school or even your family name, can also play a big role in expanding the breadth of understanding you employ in representing your clients. The lawyer who had to work his way through night classes in a part-time program at a so-called “lower-tier” school, while working during the day to support a family, for instance, can bring a valuable perspective that complements what a graduate who made her way through an Ivy League school in her early 20s might bring to the table.
• Diversity attracts new business.
This one is a no-brainer. A law firm that’s capable of managing a number of diverse lawyers often attracts a diverse range of clients. It doesn’t take a strategic planner to know that the more diverse a law firm’s client base is, the better it can prosper.
Every client “Request for Proposal (RFP)” that my firm receives makes diversity one of the key questions and one of the key criteria. It’s not just about having diverse attorneys on the proposed service team. More and more major corporations are making it a condition precedent to the engagement that diverse attorneys lead the service team and receive client originating/billing credit for doing so.
This is part and parcel of corporate diversity programs — they want their service providers, and that includes their lawyers, to reflect their corporate diversity policies and goals. Many, if not most, government agency RFPs go a step further by requiring “majority” firms to partner with minority- and women-owned law firms.
• Diversity attracts the best talent — from a bigger talent pool.
It’s a fact that it’s a seller’s market for the top minorities, women and LGBT attorneys. If your firm’s diversity commitment and documented results don’t measure up, your firm’s chances of recruiting and retaining such individuals will drop down.
That’s one of the reasons diversity is a strategic imperative at my law firm. Our managing partner made it his “Job 1″ when he took over his leadership role seven years ago. He knew that women, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, African-Americans and other groups outside what has been the mainstream of American legal culture can bring varied, competitively relevant viewpoints for practical application of the law. When given the opportunity, members of these groups can help firms grow and improve by challenging basic assumptions about the law as well as a law firm’s operations, practices and procedures.
A diverse workforce complies with the law, as well as the values of our country … it’s just the right thing to do.
It took most of our nation’s history for our laws to catch up with the values, including equal rights, upon which this nation was founded. Those laws were not achieved without immense struggle and personal sacrifice, and it wasn’t really all that long ago when things began to change.
There still are far too many of us who can remember the first woman partner at a large law firm who was elevated to that status, or the many young black lawyers who weren’t hired as associates at large law firms in Atlanta because of their race and not their qualifications. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas says he was one of them! Fortunately, it’s no longer news to be the “first woman”; it’s now an accepted part of American culture.
THE CASE ISN’T CLOSED YET ON DIVERSITY
The numbers speak for themselves. Just check the annual law firm diversity surveys such as those that are found in the Daily Report and associated ALM publications. All too often the minority, women and LGBT numbers in law-firm census data are nowhere near the local, regional or national population figures.
In a perfect world, in an ideal legal profession, law-firm diversity programs and articles like this will be things of the past, because diversity will be commonplace. Although we’ve come a long way, there still remains a long way before the case is won on diversity in the legal profession.
Diversity creates an equal footing. If there are people in the room from all types of backgrounds, then it’s 10 working together instead of nine of like mind and one odd-person-out.
Leah Ward Sears is a partner of Schiff Hardin LLP’s Atlanta office, where she is the leader of the firm’s national appellate client service team. She is also the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia. Kimberly Bourroughs is an associate of Schiff Hardin LLP’s Atlanta office, where she is in the general litigation practice group.