Most people would agree that it is natural to find comfort from cultural familiarity and that there is nothing inherently bad or wrong with that. But what if the unintended consequence is the systematic exclusion of those with whom we don’t comfortably identify? Throw in the fact that certain institutions — like law firms and their cultures — have developed and prospered not because of, but most likely despite, this phenomenon, and we find ourselves in quite the pickle in this enlightened era of law firm diversity and inclusion. I have to admit that if I were managing a large law firm today, I’d be very tempted to ask myself and my partners, "How do we fit ‘them’ in without messing ‘us’ up?"
However, perhaps the better question to ask is, "What would happen if we intentionally sought to expand our cultural familiarity by seeking exposure to people and cultures different from ours?" Not just any people. People, who are highly intelligent, highly educated lawyers with transferable expertise and skills. It wouldn’t be easy and it would probably feel unnatural at first. However, it certainly wouldn’t precipitate a Dewey-esque demise of the firm like paying multimillion-dollar, multi-year guarantees did. In fact, it might just work and we would end up better off as a result.
I believe that exposure to people, places and things that are different from our usual norm and outside of our personal comfort zone allows us to grow, intellectually and emotionally. Moreover, everyone’s life experiences and the foundation from which those experiences were developed have value and, more importantly, the potential to contribute to the greater good. In fact, during my four-year tenure as an Ivy League parent, I learned that the Ivy schools have determined that encouraging their students to learn from others about different cultures at home and abroad is as important as acquiring a formal education in math, science, art, music or philosophy. The intended consequence is that it allows our future leaders to feel comfortable with differences, instead of fearing them.
They understand, and I agree, that fear is inherently bad, because it fosters ignorance, bias and disrespect. When my daughter was small, I read to her every night from her favorite book, No Red Monsters Allowed. What I wanted her to appreciate from a young age was captured in one recurring line of the book, and it was the underlying moral of the story — "Everybody’s different, and different is good." That line quickly became our family’s mantra, along with a close second, "Be a good listener." The former mantra stuck, but the latter only lasted until age 5 when she retorted, "I have a brain that works."
We all have brains that work — not all in the same way, but that’s also good. Our uniqueness is what facilitates our ability to think and process obstacles and opportunities differently, which, when done collectively through respectful debate and discourse, will lead us as individuals and organizations to discover the best solutions and make the best choices. Isn’t that exactly what clients pay their lawyers to do on their behalf?
In a recent interview with Oprah Winfrey, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor put it this way: "It really takes growing up to treasure the specialness of being different." Now that law firm leaders are faced with the grown-up responsibility of implementing diversity and inclusion internally, perhaps it’s time for them to combine the treasures that they already possess with new diverse treasures, and watch as the combination guides them to learn from each other and ultimately prosper together. Wouldn’t that be good? •
Merle Vaughn is managing director and law firm diversity practice leader in the Los Angeles office of Major, Lindsey & Africa. Over the last decade, she hasbeen involved in several high-profile partner placements with major law firms in New York, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. She has also been retained by corporations and law firms specifically for her expertise in the area of diversity recruiting. Shecan be reached at email@example.com and 213-225-0625.