“Big law firms struggling to comply.” “Not an option anymore. It’s a mandate.” “Checking a box.” “In compliance.” These comments are excerpts from recent articles related to diversity – almost all couched as obligation rather than opportunity. However, lawyers and firms who view diversity through this limited prism are missing the mark. The mark is the intrinsic value of a diverse legal community.
Karen McKenzie, RN U.W.-Madison 1997, JD Marquette 2017, practices with the Judiciary of the Virgin Islands, Christiansted, Virgin Islands. Her practice focuses on complex litigation and class action. The opinions in this article are the author’s alone and do not reflect the views of the Judiciary of the Virgin Islands.
First, diversity should not be couched in terms of a compliance requirement, but as a mindset through which one can appreciate the socioeconomic, cultural, and physical barriers that other lawyers have overcome. Lawyers in underrepresented groups have overcome challenges many others likely will never encounter. Thus, they bring tenacity, mutuality, determination, work ethic, and sheer grit to any task. Moreover, they possess a key to winning a successful jury award – commonsense, relatable experiences.
Diversity also should be viewed as an opportunity to better understand the public we represent, the clients we serve, and the jurors we hope to persuade. According to Tiffani Lee, partner at Holland & Knight, “Clients receive the highest quality service when their legal teams are drawn from professionals mirroring the diversity of the marketplace.”
Second, diversity improves how the public views the legal profession and ensures that future leaders reflect talented, qualified individuals from unique backgrounds. As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has said, a diverse legal profession “informs the public of their impressions of the legal field and ensures that the nation’s leaders are reflective of the country.”
The ABA’s Litigation Section put teeth into its efforts to foster future diverse leaders by creating the Diverse Leaders Academy (DLA). The DLA selects a few lawyers and facilitates their two-year involvement with bar leadership, committees, and various bar initiatives. DLA members must actively support the program’s success by designing a diversity project, with a concrete action plan having measurable results. (My project involves quantitative and qualitative measures of what motivates individuals raised in poverty or socioeconomically depressed areas to pursue a law career.)
My contributions as a DLA member stem from my experience overcoming a life-threatening illness, which resulted in a long-term physical disability. Overcoming the challenges associated with relearning every activity associated with the use of my arm, facing new limitations, and how I am viewed motivated me to provide pro bono legal services to U.S. Armed Services veterans and their families regarding service-connected disability benefits appeals. In addition, my experience as an assistant attorney general in the Office of Attorney General for the U.S. Territory of Guam and current work as an attorney for the U.S. Virgin Islands has given me a special perspective and viewpoint. I see diversity as an opportunity to understand the challenges that others face and overcome, which serves only to improve our legal community.
Embracing our differences and understanding others’ challenges is an opportunity to become better lawyers and a better legal community.
Diversity should be couched not in terms of a compliance requirement but as a mindset through which one can appreciate the socioeconomic, cultural, and physical barriers that other lawyers have overcome.
Meet Our Contributors
What is the worst travel experience you’ve had?
When I accepted my first full-time job as a lawyer, I flew halfway around the world, through Japan, to Guam. I shipped everything I owned and hoped it would not get lost at sea. When I left Madison, it was -55° F and the wind chill was -80° F. I was bundled up in every piece of winter clothing I owned.
Upon arrival in Tokyo, it was a balmy 45°. When I eventually landed in Guam, it was 115°. I shed my winter gear, secured a rental car, found the condo I rented online, fought jet lag, and prepared to report for work the next day. My household goods arrived two months later, most of them broken or damaged. Part of my prized jazz collection was lost, never to be recovered.
Yes, it was rough to move halfway around the world. And yet, this troublesome travel opened the door to diverse cultural viewpoints, important work in the Office of Attorney General, and invaluable experiences as a prosecutor. The trip was worth it.
Karen McKenzie, Judiciary of the Virgin Islands, Christiansted, Virgin Islands.
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