CBA President's Message to Members: Diversity and Inclusion Within the Bar and Our Profession

When I sat down to write this article, I struggled, pushing our editorial staff beyond frustration as I delayed delivery of the final version several times.

I know in my heart why diversity and inclusion matter, but translating those feelings into writing is a difficult task. Upon great reflection, I concluded that the main reason I have this struggle is because I am a middle-aged white male, born and raised in the Denver suburbs. I cannot define diversity. I don’t know what it means to be a diverse person. I have not suffered prejudice or been excluded because of my gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or birthplace.

I have many diverse friends and colleagues, and I have heard many of their experiences. But where I fall short is actually knowing what it means to be a diverse person. I know of their experiences and struggles, but only on a superficial level. As a result, I cannot create meaningful diversity and inclusion on my own. What I can do as CBA president, however, is challenge all of our members to work with me to create meaningful diversity and inclusion within the bar and our profession.

My Lesson in Diversity

Most of us, if not all of us, value diversity, at least at a conceptual or aspirational level. It is something that we acknowledge is important to strive to achieve, and many of us work hard to find meaningful ways to diversify our practices and our profession and include diverse voices in our conversations. But we must dig deeper to achieve meaningful diversity and inclusion, and this begins with truly understanding why diversity matters.

A key experience a few years ago helped me better understand the need for diversity and inclusion in the legal profession. After going through the CBA’s Leadership Training Program (COBALT) in 2010, I was fortunate enough to be on the 2011 COBALT Programs Committee, which is tasked with organizing the program for the upcoming year. The main part of this task is securing speakers and setting agendas for the leadership training sessions. I was responsible for the first COBALT session, a three-day retreat to kick off the 2011 program.

My fellow collaborators and I worked hard to develop a strong program, securing judges and high-profile attorneys and industry leaders to speak to the class. When our agenda was finalized, I presented it to former CBA Assistant Executive Director Dana Collier Smith, who ran the COBALT program. Dana took a few minutes to look over the agenda, studying the speakers and topics. She handed me back the agenda and said, "This is an impressive lineup, but you don’t have any female or other diverse attorneys as speakers. You have all white males presenting."

I was struck dumb. Diversity is something I value very deeply and is one of the cornerstones of the COBALT program. Diversity was a key consideration in selecting the members of the class—a class that I helped handpick with that value at the center of the selection conversations. And here, when forming a program for the class, I had not once considered or thought about diversity. I defaulted to what was comfortable to me. I was set to teach from what I knew, to teach from how I had been taught.

Neglecting diversity and inclusion issues in our day-to-day decision-making is a common pitfall that many of us unwittingly stumble into. When we need an opinion on diversity and inclusion, many of us can automatically come up with a handful of diverse attorneys to write articles or give presentations on the subject. But that does not serve to strengthen diversity or improve inclusion. Instead, it does the opposite: it further pigeonholes such attorneys into those roles.

We often label diverse attorneys as the African-American attorney, the female attorney, the LGBT attorney, the Asian attorney, the Middle Eastern attorney, the Indian attorney, the Hispanic attorney, and so on. We miss who these individuals are at their core, where their talents actually lie, and how they can contribute substantively to any conversation. I challenge you to think instead of the talented business attorney, the attorney gifted at drafting wills and trusts, the tenacious litigator, the skilled corporate attorney, or the studious judge or magistrate. Stop thinking of these members of our profession only as diverse attorneys; think of them as excellent lawyers who have life experience that’s different from your own.

It took Dana pointing out that I had fallen into an all-too-common pattern to realize why diversity matters. But once confronted with the issue, I was able to take a step back and work to create a more diverse agenda. And while my original lineup surely would have been well-received, it would not have been as successful as the final product. By actively focusing on diversity in forming the program, I was able to include very talented speakers who also happened to be diverse. Not only did those speakers provide deep substantive knowledge regarding leadership, but they also shared valuable perspectives and experiences that would have gone unheard had I gone with the speakers I originally selected for the program.

Progressing from Mere Understanding to Meaningful Action

I share this story because the mistake I made is repeated on a daily basis within the bar and our profession. And this speaks to why diversity and inclusion matter: at any given moment, there are hundreds of talented attorneys who are members of the bar and the profession who have perspectives and experiences that, if shared, will enrich us and raise the level of our practices, thereby improving the bar and profession as a whole. The barriers to those shared experiences are in place due to a lack of understanding. When we understand that these barriers are in place, and when we truly value the contributions that all members of our profession have to offer, we can then work toward meaningful diversity and inclusion.

But understanding isn’t enough. We have to ensure that talented attorneys who also happen to be diverse are included in all that we do. When there is a need for a subject matter expert as a speaker for a CLE, an opening on the bench, a position within a law firm, an opening on a bar committee, or some other leadership position within the bar and beyond, we must encourage diverse attorneys to apply for those positions and help make their advancement possible.

We must also work toward a culture of openness and acceptance—not just on paper but in practice. For example, a large firm can hire a large number of diverse attorneys, and it will seem diverse on paper, but that does not make the firm diverse, nor does it ensure that the diverse attorneys it hires feel welcome or are able to succeed there. Meaningful diversity and inclusion goes far beyond statistics. Firms must foster an environment where all attorneys are accepted and welcome, where they are supported and encouraged. When diverse attorneys are hired yet continue to feel like outsiders, the goal of diversity has not been met, even if it is an apparent success on paper.

I mention this not to pick on big firms, but to provide an easy example of ways in which we can seemingly come close to achieving diversity and still fail. This happens not only in large firms, but also in bar associations (large and small) and throughout all aspects of our profession. For there to be meaningful diversity and inclusion, we must move beyond the numbers and focus on welcoming and advancing diverse attorneys within the profession.

The Presidents’ Diversity Council

During my term as president-elect, my conversations with then-President Charley Garcia often turned to the future of the bar. One of the topics we frequently discussed was how to create meaningful diversity within the profession. The CBA has a very active diversity committee and also works hard to support the specialty and minority bar associations, but we need to do more than just sponsor events and have CBA leadership attend dinners. As Charley and I discussed this issue, I wondered aloud why the CBA does not have a better connection to the specialty and minority bars beyond these limited contacts. At that moment, the idea for the Presidents’ Diversity Council was born.

The Diversity Council comprises the CBA leadership and senior staff, as well as the presidents of the Colorado specialty and minority bar associations. We meet to find ways the CBA can help support the other bar associations, but more important, to work toward bringing about actual diversity and inclusion within the CBA and the rest of the profession. It is my goal to work toward policies, procedures, and best practices that foster a welcome and inviting environment within the CBA.

This is just one small but important step toward truly meaningful diversity and inclusion within the CBA and the profession. In the months and years ahead, I hope to report the successes of these efforts.

Challenging Ourselves to Do Better

Diversity matters because shared perspectives and varied experiences make us all better, and in turn help us better serve our clients and community. I challenge each of you to be more mindful of diversity and inclusion in your day-to-day practice. I challenge you to avoid defaulting to outdated and counterproductive ways of thinking about diverse attorneys. I challenge you to invite those with experiences different from your own to the table and to enjoy the varied perspectives those lawyers add to the conversation. I challenge myself to do the same.

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