Diversity matters. It matters for reasons of social justice. It matters because folks are tracking it, and it can be important to look good on those scales. It matters for reasons of trial strategy, because our defense team should look at least slightly like our jurors. In particular types of cases, diversity may be a terribly important consideration. Employers may, for example, want an African-American to defend a race discrimination case. (Or, in my old product liability life, we may have wanted women to defend breast implant or hormone replacement therapy cases. Or we may have looked for female expert witnesses for those cases. Pandering, thy name is litigator!)
Law firms know this, and those that are able now stress their commitment to diversity. Which brings me to today’s story.
A female colleague and I recently had lunch with folks from a firm that was looking for our business. (You’d be surprised how good I’m getting at those lunches. Whether or not I remember your name the next day is another matter, but I’m becoming a pro at eating.)
The outside lawyers pitched the diversity point fairly aggressively, telling us about their many highly compensated female partners and paying particular attention to my colleague when they did so.
When we left the lunch, my colleague said, “Well, that’s exactly the wrong way to sell diversity.”
“Ha!” I thought. “Here’s a blog post waiting to happen!” So I cleverly asked, “What offended you?”
“Are you kidding me?
“First, we just had lunch with two old white guys. Don’t just tell me about your women. Bring one along. If you have women that you’re proud of, how about letting them participate in business development efforts? How about letting us decide whether the women impress us and whether we’d like to retain them?
“Second, don’t tell me about your highly compensated female partners. That’s easy to lie about, because matters of compensation are often kept confidential. And it’s also meaningless. It’s much easier for the old white guys to give up money than it is for them to give up power. If you want to impress me, tell me that a woman is on your executive committee, or is the managing partner of your firm. Don’t tell me that you pay a few women a lot of money.
“Third, don’t patronize me. Didn’t you notice that, every time those guys talked about diversity, they stopped looking at you and started talking to me? And that wasn’t limited to when they were talking about diversity generally. One of them turned to tell me that I’d like his wife. Why would I like his wife? Why wouldn’t you like his wife? And they asked me about my kids, but they never asked you about yours. Who do they think they’re fooling?
“And how about that parting shot? To you, they say, ‘It was a pleasure meeting you. I hope we can do some business together.’ But to me it was, ‘Good luck taking care of those kids.’ These guys just don’t get it.”
I must say that my colleague is generally a calm and level-headed woman, not easily disturbed by unintended slights. Which suggests that firms should be very careful when trying to convince folks of their commitment to diversity.
Forewarned is forearmed.
Mark Herrmann is the Vice President and Chief Counsel – Litigation at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law (affiliate link).
You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.