As bar leaders, lawyers can successfully integrate diversity into your bar, into your leadership, and into your future plans for your organization.
Today, I’m happy to talk about how you as bar leaders can successfully integrate diversity into your bar, into your leadership, and into your future plans for your organization.
To start, let’s talk about what you do. You’re leaders. All of you. You’re leaders of your bars. And the great thing about the profession is that we have long been leaders at every level of leadership in this country, from its founding until today.
And why is that important? Because as a leader, you need to remember the single most important truth about leadership. It’s not just about direction, or vision, or goals, or inspiration. All of that is important, but none of that matters if you don’t have this.
People are the power behind any organization. And those people are diverse, and they want what people have always wanted. They want to be seen, they want to be accepted, they want to belong, they want to soar. And that’s why I’m here with you.
Because that seeing people? That helping them shine? That’s not what’s happening in our profession right now. That’s not what’s happening with our bars.
Instead, this is what is happening. An echo chamber. An echo chamber that reinforces the same people who have long led our associations, who then promote and put into leadership roles people who look a lot like them. Similar schools, similar practice groups, similar firms, similar races, and genders, and ethnicities, and identities.
And we are losing out. We’re losing out on new ideas, innovative solutions, diverse thoughts, the perspectives that we need to generate change. The challenge for everyone sitting here, all the leaders in this room, is how do we make that change happen.
It won’t be comfortable. It won’t be easy. But we have to. And I’ll give you three reasons why.
First, because of our nation. For the first time in American history, there are more children aged zero to nine who are minority than who are white. Or again, let me phrase this another way. Every year since 2010, white children have been the minority in this country. So that minority majority nation that you keep hearing about, it’s not just going to pop up in 2044, it’s happening right now. By this time next year, over half of the children in the United States will belong to a minority group.
The challenge is that the demographics of our profession, particularly our leadership, simply don’t reflect that. They don’t reflect our transforming nation either. Nor do they reflect the 70% of our nation who are women or people of color.
So what are we going to tell this new generation of lawyers coming in our doors? Are we going to tell them that their identities matter, but not here? That their perspectives matter, but not here? That they can be leaders, but not here?
Because here’s reason #2. Those changing demographics? Here’s a not-so-secret secret about them. They are great for your organization. They make you a stronger, smarter, more successful organization. Don’t believe me? Look at the studies.
Companies with the highest levels of racial or gender diversity brought in nearly 15 times more sales revenue as those with the lowest. For every 1% increase in racial or gender diversity, there was an increase in sales revenue of 9% and 3% respectively. And companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their peers.
Now, why is that? Some great research out of Kellogg goes into it. What researchers found was that socially different group members do a lot more than just introduce new viewpoints or perspectives. Instead, diversity triggers more careful information processing absent in homogenous groups.
See, when your team is homogenous, you feel even more pressure to speak just like everyone else. Diversity, however, it creates awkwardness, and it’s the need to diffuse tension that leads to better group problem solving.
Here’s the reality. It’s much easier to create a homogenous group of people who think similarly, enjoy similar things, work similar hours, and don’t make each other uncomfortable. But it doesn’t make them better performers, it doesn’t make them better problem solvers, and it means that your organization will perform worse than your peers who embrace that discomfort.
When we talk today about exiting the echo chamber, that’s what we’re talking about. Diversity when you’re designing a program that you later learn offended a certain group, a large group, but you didn’t know that because there wasn’t a single member of that group in your room. And worse, none of the people in that room took the time to understand the perspectives of people who weren’t there. Diversity when you’re nominating award winners and you think, “We’re running out of people to give awards to,” without recognizing that maybe the reason you’ve run out of them, is because you think of the same types of people over and over again. Diversity when you’re frustrated that no new members are attending the event that you spent months designing, because those new members didn’t have a voice in designing a program they would want to see.
But it doesn’t end there. We don’t only want diversity because our nation is changing. We don’t only want diversity because it makes our team better. Because the second you don’t see positive results from your hard work, then you’re going to do what makes most sense to you – retreat. Go back into your echo chamber and keep doing what’s always worked.
Which is why I want to give you a third reason. We want diversity because people matter. Their thoughts matter. Their opinions matter. Their perspectives matter. I am a leader who cares about diversity because I care about people. That’s why we exit the echo chamber. That’s how we make diversity matter. Because we make people matter.
That’s why you have to get out of our echo chambers. Because if you are really invested in diversity, then you need to get out and actively search for and work with and recruit and promote and include and mentor and sponsor and award and advocate for people who are different from you.
It’s easy to find diversity. It’s much harder to make that diversity matter. Let’s make diversity matter. Let’s make it matter in our law firms, our meeting rooms, our conferences, our annual dinners, our fundraisers, our program committees, our bars, our profession. Make diversity matter in every space you lead, and make it the starring role of the legacy that you leave behind. Exit your echo chambers. I cannot wait to see how you transform this profession when you do.
Michelle Silverthorn delivered this address to the ABA’s Bar Leadership Institute, which took place in Chicago from March 13-15, 2019.