“This is what a lawyer looks like”
I have always been a strong believer in the value of engaging with communities directly. During my time as president of the Hispanic National Bar Association (HNBA) I made community engagement my mission. HNBA representatives would go into schools in primarily black and brown communities wearing these t-shirts that had “This is what a lawyer looks like” printed on them and the kids would say, “Wait, you’re a lawyer?”. It was awesome to see that we could change their perceptions of what a lawyer looks like and make them realise they can do this job.
When I think back to my own experience of education and entry into law, I can see how useful that sort of awareness would have been. I am always very open about my experiences because I want people who find themselves in a similar situation to know these experiences are not incompatible with a successful career. I went to law school with a baby and graduated top of my class!
I was raised in a predominately Latino community where young women were not necessarily encouraged to pursue an education. I was the first person in my family to graduate high school. I married young and had my first baby when I was in college. I didn’t have any guidance on which college to apply to or any of the important questions students should take for granted: What do you want to pursue? Is this the right school? Is this the best school? Frankly, I based where I was going to study on its proximity to my boyfriend.
At college, and especially at law school, it was very, very lonely. I didn’t feel like I belonged. If you are from a background where higher education is not the norm you carry a kind of imposter syndrome around with you. Even now, after a successful 20-year career that sense of being an outsider occasionally lurks back in. Every so often I will hear a comment and think, “oh my gosh, maybe this was all just a lucky streak”. Rationally, I know that is not true, but it is something I know a lot of minorities have to deal with in the workplace, and it was certainly something I had to deal with in my early career. I was surrounded by people who did not look or sound like me, and who very likely did not have the same experiences as me.
I was a Hispanic woman, married with a kid; I just didn’t fit the mould of a successful lawyer. At law school, I was counselled by the career service team not to mention that I had a child when applying for jobs. I had to pretend to be someone I was not, and went through the first few years of my practice as a lawyer almost as two separate people living parallel lives. But I’m not someone who ever backs down. I used negative comments and prejudices to fuel me. Besides, as a young mother there was more at stake than just myself. The ability to fail was not n option.
More than a ‘diversity hire’
Majority communities can have a hard time understanding the sense of isolation or otherness that comes with being a minority in the workplace. Any complaints are seen as an attack on affirmative action programmes and minority-inclusive hiring practices. This is missing the point. As diverse candidate you naturally approach an interview thinking, “Am I here as a potential diversity hire? Does the company want me because of all the things I’ve done, or does it want me because I am a woman, and especially a woman of colour?” This is not a case of being paranoid, ot is just reporting the facts. As any minority will know, people actually do say these things.
A few years ago, I was at a dinner with a law firm and we got to talking about a particular judge who was African American. One of the partners dismissed this judge’s experience on the grounds that he was, “an affirmative action hire”. He was discussing a federal judge who went to a phenomenal school, yet felt comfortable using that language.
A couple of years later we had a partnership retreat that included a D&I component. When it came to questions from the audience, I stood up and told this story. The lawyer who had made those comments was in the audience and knew exactly what I was talking about. I wasn’t going to publicly name and shame him, but it was my way of demonstrating the point that someone will sit through a discussion of D&I without being aware of this hypocrisy, or of how outrageous and damaging these beliefs are. This sort of prejudice in the legal profession is far more widespread that is commonly acknowledged.
Leading by example
If you want to judge whether a company is truly diverse, look at the makeup of its wider management. Don’t just look at the diversity and inclusion committee, which is where you tend to find diverse people – look at who the decision-makers are and whether they are diverse. Then ask, what does that company consider a diverse team looks like? Is it just having a woman on the board, or is it a real mix of people who have got there because the company is prepared to promote talent wherever it sees it?
In that sense, it is incredibly refreshing to work at a global company like Lenovo, where I deal with a diverse set of people from all over the world. We have a CEO who is compassionate and passionate about all issues that concern underrepresented or disadvantaged people. At the start of the pandemic, he put his own personal money and effort into sending laptops to poor communities throughout China, with a personal letter from him to the recipients.
When Black Lives Matter took off, we held some really honest townhall meetings to discuss how staff felt about the movement and what more could be done to improve the workplace. We held roundtable discussions where people were free to ask bold questions about how we were going to deal with the issues BLM raised, or to make sure that all our people felt included. Not only that, but the company matches our financial contributions to social causes one to five, which made a big difference.
That commitment to D&I bleeds through everything at Lenovo. I don’t feel like my gender or my ethnicity has any bearing on how people approach me as a lawyer. Corporations are doing so much better with diversity and inclusion than law firms in the US. Law firms could really learn a lot from their clients.
Of course, counsel we can say that law firms need to change until they’re blue in the face. Let’s focus on actions rather than words. In a role where you are looking at candidates, dealing with vendors, or spending money, you have the power to effect the kind of change you are preaching. Leaders in any senior-level executive position have the power to move the dial, and there is a duty to be very intentional when it comes to diversity.
I am proud to say that my entire team is diverse. I require all my outside counsel to have a diverse team. We request biannual reports giving the various demographics within the team, and more importantly we check what role each lawyer will play on a particular piece of work. Diverse talent needs to have an actual, critical, material role in the work, it can’t just be somebody who is there for optics.
One thing that I absolutely know for sure is that until we can give equal access to underrepresented communities, and particularly to black and brown communities, we are going to find ourselves dealing with these issues in the law continuously.
The legal profession remains of the least diverse professions in the US. Just 5% of lawyers are of Hispanic heritage, even though such people make up about 18% of the population. In the IP space it is even worse. Latinas make up less than 0.2% of IP lawyers. Just think about that number for a second. A community makes up about 18% of the US population accounts for less than 0.2% of IP lawyers. That level of disparity is not something that will change without intentional efforts on the part of GCs and senior counsel.
Of course, we need to think about what constitutes “diversity”, that diversity programmes are truly inclusive and not alienating any group. I have thought about this many times. Should we make diversity an economic issue, for example? Communities of colour are disproportionately poorer, but many other groups face socio-economic exclusion. The reality is this: white privilege is still white privilege. We need to address the disadvantages inherent to being a person of colour in the United States before we can look at bigger issues.
It is also a problem we can solve. Black and brown communities are abysmally underrepresented in the legal profession. As GCs we may not be able to change everything, but we can change that.