There is a growing sense among bar associations throughout the United States that lawyers should be required to take continuing legal education courses that focus on diversity, inclusion, and the elimination of bias. It’s a response to the realization that the legal profession, like most others, still has work to do if lawyers expect to compete with one another on the content of our character and mastery of legal skills rather than our looks or beliefs.
But attending a program on diversity isn’t going to turn a lawyer into an ally any more than attending a program summarizing the latest rulings from the Wisconsin Supreme Court makes someone an expert in appellate law. True understanding comes from doing.
With that in mind, we’ve pulled together several tips and tactics for anyone who wants to take concrete steps to becoming an ally and ensuring that lawyers, as individuals, as a profession, and as part of society, are working toward making the world a little bit better than we found it.
1. Learn with an Open Mind
Before you start to learn about how to become an ally, have an open mind. That means you must leave your own preferences and opinions at the door in certain circumstances. Recognize that everyone has biases. Understand that having privilege does not mean you didn’t work hard or that you didn’t struggle for what you have. Having privilege means that there are some things in life that you don’t have to think about or won’t experience just because of who you are.
Once your mind is open, then it’s time to learn. Study more about a particular group in your legal community, whether that group includes your colleagues or the clients you serve. Find out what challenges a particular group faces. You can look at a number of nonfiction books, podcasts, and documentaries to start.
2. Listen Intently
After you have done some research, it is likely that you will have some questions. It is okay to ask an underrepresented friend or colleague if they would be willing to chat so you can better understand the challenges they’ve faced or experiences they’ve endured. However, don’t expect someone from a diverse background to drop everything they are doing and take on the emotional labor of educating you.
Roya Bahrami, U.W. 2012, grew up in Milwaukee. She currently lives in San Francisco and works as in-house counsel to Intel Corporation.
Emily Kelchen, U.W. 2011, is the owner of Kelchen Consulting, a government affairs and legal marketing firm based in Tennessee. She also serves on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Communications Committee.
Ioua Alen Marcyn B. Lagazo, Marquette 2018, currently works as in-house counsel to CNH Industrial, Burr Ridge, Ill. He also works as an athlete marketing consultant for AMR Agency LLC, a full-service sports agency, and serves as co-vice chair of the board and director of social media & marketing for the Brigham Young University Alumni Chicago Chapter.
The authors are members of the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Nonresident Lawyers Division board. Get to know the authors: Check out Q&A below.
As you ask your questions, listen for understanding, not to prepare for a rebuttal. Attorneys are prone to being skeptical and have developed skills to look for weaknesses in an opponent’s statements or arguments. Resist the urge. Don’t interrupt people as they speak. Acknowledge what you’ve heard from your friend or colleague before going on to make another point. When a person says something that is different from your own philosophy or belief, it is important to accept the description of the person’s experiences as real, even if you haven’t experienced it or don’t understand it.
These conversations can be uncomfortable, but being an ally isn’t always convenient or comfortable. Ask questions: For example, which changes in the workplace would help your friend or colleague succeed, excel, or feel more accepted; how you can be more supportive as a friend or coworker.
3. Work on Reframing
Everyone has unconscious biases. We all assume that the way we are living our lives is the best way to live – otherwise we would seek to make some changes. This becomes a problem when we project our own preferences onto others.
Reframing the way we think and talk about our differences can help everyone view them as assets.
For example, we should be actively inclusive in thought and deed. Don’t assume that all your friends and coworkers are straight or cisgender. Someone close to you could be looking for support in their coming-out process. Not making assumptions will give them the space they need.
Another example is changing the way we talk about religious beliefs and observances. Instead of saying to someone who observes Ramadan, “you poor thing, it must be difficult for you to starve yourself all day,” you could try saying, “I have so much admiration for your commitment to your faith.”
Being an ally is about believing that all people should be treated with dignity and respect and then taking the next step by applying this belief to how we interact with others.
4. Say Their Name
If you can pronounce Gillett, Ixonia, Prairie du Chien, and Waukesha, you can learn how to correctly pronounce the names of your colleagues and clients. If someone tells you their preferred pronouns, you can remember them, too.
If you need help remembering pronouns or pronunciations, make liberal use of the notes function on your phone.
If you know someone’s difficult-to-pronounce name is being mangled, quietly let people know they are making a mistake, and try to say the name correctly as many times as you can. Don’t make a big deal out of it. Just get it done.
5. Be a Stand-Byer, Not a Bystander
While the law may recognize the role of the innocent bystander, allies cannot. Don’t stand by and wait for someone from a diverse background to speak up when you hear an off-color joke or see someone being cut out of a decision-making process.
You don’t find that funny. You know what is happening isn’t right. Stand up and stand by others.
Stand-byers also speak up to amplify diverse voices. Back up others who speak up in meetings at professional events and in your personal life. Be the second when there are formal opportunities for discussion of difficult topics.
6. Life Outside the Office Is Important, No Matter What It Includes
Everyone you know has a life outside work. Nobody should feel pressured to justify spending their free time as they see fit. Workplaces and professional organizations should respect the reality that networking and social activities must reflect the non-work activities of everyone in the profession.
Many parents want to get home in time to do more than put their kids to bed. And just because someone doesn’t have children doesn’t mean that they don’t have equally important preferences for how they spend their time after work. Professional development and networking can also occur in the morning, at lunch, or even at family-friendly weekend activities.
These types of career-enriching opportunities also must occur in places other than bars. It’s no secret that substance abuse is a problem in the legal profession. There are also individuals of certain religions who abstain from alcohol or coffee. Instead of saying, “let’s grab a coffee” or “let’s go out for drinks,” try being more inclusive by offering a wider variety of beverages and focusing on hosting a fun event rather than an opportunity to chat while consuming calories.
7. Share the Load
If you are working for or with an organization that has a formal diversity initiative in place, make sure the burden of implementation is equally shared. For example, staff and volunteers in organizations such as the State Bar of Wisconsin, which has a diversity committee, must keep in mind the importance of asking diverse people to serve on practice area committees instead of, or in addition to, asking them to focus solely on diversity issues. Diversity initiatives are time-consuming and emotionally draining, so nobody should be pigeon-holed into focusing solely on them.
8. Don’t Wait for Volunteers
Instead of asking for volunteers when a job needs to get done, go through your mental Rolodex®. Try to think of someone you know who would be a good fit for the role but might not feel comfortable or confident enough to volunteer themselves. Ask the person whether they’d like to participate. Sometimes all we need is a push in the right direction and some encouragement to become an active diversity ally.
9. Forgiveness and Commitment
As diversity allies, we all need to realize that people make mistakes. We shouldn’t be “canceling” another person if they’ve truly apologized for something done in the past. If someone has made a mistake and is showing sincere commitment to changing their behavior, their past behavior should be referenced only when there is an opportunity to seek feedback, to grow, and to move forward. We need to let people grow, and we need to believe that people can change and improve.
‘Ally’ Is Not Just a Noun
Being an ally isn’t about being “woke.” It’s about being a decent human being. It’s also not a self-appointed title you give yourself or add to your LinkedIn profile. Saying you’re an ally is not enough. We have to show it through our words and actions.
We hope these tips give everyone some insight into how easy it can be to show people who are different from you that they belong in this profession and have an important role to play in its future.
Meet Our Contributors
Where or when do you get your best ideas?
Whether for family, work, or hobbies, I’ve learned that there isn’t one particular place I go to get my best ideas. It could happen on my commute to work while listening to a podcast. It could happen while I’m deep in the trenches of redlining a contract. It could happen while I’m mowing the lawn with music blasting from my headphones. It could happen when I’m eating at a restaurant while my 2 year old is climbing onto the table from his high chair, spilling the food, and causing my 1st grader to cry because her chocolate milk is now spilled, and the baby also bawling because she’s teething. Regardless of the scenario, and perhaps after things have calmed down, I make an effort to write down in my phone ideas that come to me. Sometimes, a few of those ideas turn out to be some of my best ideas.
Ioua Alen Marcyn B. Lagazo, CNH Industrial, Burr Ridge, Ill.
How has your career surprised you?
In law school, I was interested in immigration and employment law and aimed to work in either of those fields. However, after completing a yearlong clerkship and wondering how I could draft opinions forever, I happened upon an opportunity at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to be a legal advisor to Veterans Law Judges in Washington, D.C. Not knowing anything about this area of law was challenging, but the nature of the work – drafting opinions – was something that I enjoyed for nearly seven years.
Changing life circumstances brought me to San Francisco nearly four years ago, and I became friends with a lot of tech industry professionals. I was intrigued by this new world and wondered how I could cross over. Through networking and a little luck, I recently transitioned as in-house counsel to Intel Corporation, focusing on the growing areas of privacy and security law. I love that my career in the law continues to challenge and surprise me.
Roya Bahrami, Intel Corporation, San Francisco
What is your favorite place in the state where you live?
I moved to Tennessee less than a year ago, but I am already in love with the Great Smoky Mountains. They are breathtakingly beautiful and so fun to explore. With each passing season I am awed by nature’s ability to shape and reshape the same landscape into wildly different vistas. I am looking forward to the first time I spot a bear in the wild, although I hope it will be in the national park, and not in my backyard.
Emily Kelchen, Kelchen Consulting, Tennessee
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» Cite this article: 95 Wis. Law. 16-18 (June 2022).