As Rodney King asked, after the civil unrest in Los Angeles that erupted as a result of his beating by police officers, “Can’t we all just get along?”
One of the many dramatic changes that swept the legal profession over the past 30 years is the growing number of women, minorities, and others with diverse backgrounds entering the practice of law. Although, as a whole, the progress of female attorneys and attorneys of color have not matched that of the “typical” white male attorney, there has been advancement in terms of numbers of women and minority lawyers practicing and attaining positions of respect and influence. Attorneys from a variety of backgrounds, including women, people of color, people with disabilities, and people with differing sexual orientations now can be found in virtually every aspect of the legal profession. Consequently, in order to get ahead in your career, you need to get along with attorneys who come from many different backgrounds and cultures. Most of the following recommendations may fall within the realm of common sense, but awareness and sensitivity are essential.
In these “politically correct” times, most of us are conscious of the language we use and its potential to offend. We know better than to tell discriminatory jokes or use derogatory terms, but sometimes the preferred terminology is a moving target. For example, in the forties, persons of African American descent were properly referred to as “colored”; in the fifties, the term became “Negro”; and in the sixties, “black” was beautiful. Similarly, confusion exists regarding “Hispanic”, “Chicano”, “Latino”, etc. The U.S. Supreme Court, in Hernandez v NY(1991) chose to use “Latino” because it is more inclusive, and not tied to a national origin. Likewise, firefighters are not always firemen.
The fact is, however, that the term “minority” to refer to persons of color may itself be inaccurate because, at least in California, the Census Bureau reported in August 2000 that this state’s population is comprised of minorities and there is no real majority. Whites now are less than 50% of California’s population statewide, and they lost their majority status in Los Angeles and San Francisco counties by 1990. Therefore, “person of color” may be more accurate. The important point regarding language is to be aware, and use tact, sensitivity, and common sense.
Another basic rule to keep in mind is that each attorney must be treated as an individual. Often, for example, African-American male attorneys complain of being confused with other African-American males, Hispanic females with other Hispanic females, and so on. It is imperative not to impute the attributes or failures of one in a group to all members of that group. Furthermore, in a diverse world, it is not sufficient to treat all people the same; rather, all people should be treated fairly, with respect for their differences.
If you find yourself in a situation where you perceive that you are in the minority for any reason, you can take steps to reduce the possibility of bias. Act as a professional at all times, be worthy of respect, and do not harass others (it goes both ways). Avoid reinforcing stereotypes, such as using “feminine wiles”. Look out for your own career advancement and promote your accomplishments. Meet expectations; perform well-“success breeds success”.
Help other similarly situated lawyers whenever possible, and support and promote, but do not create exclusionary cliques. Affirmatively seek out mentors and role models, and not only from among those “like you”. Look for skills and attributes you can learn from a variety of attorneys. In the face of discrimination, stay calm and, if reasonably possible, speak up—tell the offender what, why, and how a particular comment or behavior is offensive. And, if necessary, bring the incident to the attention of the appropriate person (s) in your organization. Be flexible, and use humor when possible to diffuse tense situations.
If you perceive yourself to be in the majority, but believe that there is the possibility of bias, you also can take steps to avoid or alleviate the situation. First of all, identify your own stereotypes and assumptions. Be aware of your words and actions. Lead by example and insist that others also treat everyone (staff, witnesses, other attorneys, etc.) with courtesy and dignity regardless of sex, race or any other characteristic. In your speech and writing, use consistent and respectful forms of address and refrain from any unnecessary designation of gender or race. Introduce female or minority colleagues to clients or other counsel as an equal and important part of the team. Make a point to include women, minority, disabled, and/or gay colleagues in all business activities—you do not want to overlook potential role models or business prospects just because they are different than you.
Observe and respect others’ comfort zones, personal distance, and tenor of their language, and match it as much as possible. Watch others’ reactions; note how they treat you and others as a clue to how they would like to be treated. If unsure of how to act in a particular situation, ask. For example, ask a person with disabilities if they would like assistance; do not assume they cannot handle something themselves. Take anger and upsets seriously, and apologize if you unintentionally offend someone. Respect others’ differences and wishes. And, again, be flexible. Speak up when others exhibit bias. As Attorney General Janet Reno remarked at a Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles reception in June 1996, “Haters are cowards. When confronted they will often back down; left alone, they spread.”
Combating bias in the legal profession is a case of doing well by doing good. The better you get along with others, the more likely they will help you progress in your career.