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Vol. 43, No. 3

Diversity and inclusion: Bar communications play a critical role

by Marilyn Cavicchia

To paraphrase the age-old question about a tree in the forest, what happens if a bar association does a great job with diversity and inclusion, but no one hears about it?

For those who have direct responsibility over diversity and inclusion, the communications department is “our window to the outside world,” said Athena Hollins, diversity and inclusion director at the Minnesota State Bar Association. (Note: Because of a shared staffing arrangement among the MSBA, Hennepin County Bar Association, and Ramsey County Bar Association, some job titles, including Hollins’, may have changed.)

At the 2018 NABE Communications Section Workshop, joining Hollins in discussing diversity and inclusion within bar associations—and particularly, the role that communications can play—were: Joyce Hastings, communications director, State Bar of Wisconsin; Elizabeth Neeley, executive director, Nebraska State Bar Association; and Cynthia Robinson, associate professor and chair of black studies, University of Nebraska Omaha.

How diverse is the bar?

Hollins said the MSBA has taken the approach that its most effective role is not to direct resources toward studying diversity and inclusion in the legal profession. Instead, she said, the MSBA’s efforts are much more internal, focusing on making the bar itself a model by diversifying its membership and staff, and by supporting affinity bars within its state.

Because “you can’t set a goal unless you know what you have,” Hollins recommended starting by gathering as much data as you can about diversity among your members, in terms of race and ethnicity, disability, age, gender, LGBTQ status, and other factors. This may help you identify certain areas of diversity where you particularly need to focus your outreach efforts.

Even as you seek diversity in membership, Hastings said, it’s also appropriate to be aware of your overall surroundings and its demographics. For example, she noted, the population of Wisconsin in general is 88 percent white. In some of the more remote areas of the state, she added, racial and ethnic diversity is a bit more difficult to attain, so gender diversity is more of a focus. Other panelists agreed that it’s valid to look at the overall population and direct attention toward aspects of diversity where the bar’s efforts might make a particular impact.

Taking an honest look at the bar’s publications

But that doesn’t mean the bar’s publications don’t need diversity in all forms, in articles and images. They should “reflect aspirational diversity,” rather than being strictly in line with the bar’s actual demographics, Hastings believes. Hollins agreed, noting that if a bar hopes to increase diversity in its membership by attracting more diverse lawyers to move there, having a bar publication in which everyone is white will send the opposite message.

Hastings shared an uncomfortable experience that she had, but that became something positive: A member looked through the bar’s flagship magazine and was upset by how little diversity he saw, taking into account everything from advertisements to images and photos accompanying articles, to headshots of authors and interview subjects. In a case like that, Hastings said, whatever diversity efforts have been made—and the fact that the bar can’t control how outside ads are designed—should not be used as a defense against the criticism. It’s better, she said, to take this feedback constructively and realize that more, or different work may be needed.

For the State Bar of Wisconsin, Hastings said, this has meant intensified efforts to go out and meet people, to cover news and events from affinity bars, and to grow a more diverse and inclusive network of potential authors, speakers, and interview subjects. The formerly dissatisfied member is now a mentor and friend, she added; he checks in every other month and gives his assessment of the magazine in terms of diversity and inclusion.

Hollins said that an objective measure, such as counting photos of article subjects, is more valuable than asking qualitative survey questions about how well members think the bar’s publications are doing in terms of diversity. It can be difficult to measure, she acknowledged, “because there are ways people are diverse that don’t show up in a photo.”

The network-building effort that Hastings mentioned can help, Hollins said, because this way, you can draw from “a known, diverse pool” rather than attempting to guess whether someone is diverse in a particular way. Reiterating her previous point about the importance of good data, Hollins recommended building additional self-reporting opportunities into any efforts to collect member information.

The bar doesn’t have to go it alone

Ensuring that the legal profession is committed to diversity and inclusion—a commitment that will then be reflected in bar leadership—is not something that bar associations can accomplish all on their own, Neeley said. Law firms must be engaged, and so must individual members, she believes.

Making a difference in diversity and inclusion “takes dedication, and it takes strategy,” Neeley said, noting that the Nebraska state bar is now embarking on a major effort to support minority lawyers and improve retention at law firms—and communications will be key.

Often, she added, a bar’s staff thinks “we have to do it all,” but members have a wealth of knowledge, influence, and interest. If a bar does not have a diversity committee or other member-led entity dedicated to diversity and inclusion, Neeley strongly recommended establishing one.

“You don’t have all the answers,” she explained. “I guarantee you’ll have lots of members who want to help.”

Likewise, it isn’t just communications staff or other bar staff members who should broaden their networks or stretch to think of others they might be overlooking: If a white man wants to write an article, Hastings suggested, ask that he work with a coauthor who is a woman, a young lawyer, a person of color, and/or who is diverse in another way. Often, she said, the potential author can easily think of someone at his firm—when he is asked to do so.

Whether it’s as a speaker, an author, or an interview subject, Neeley said, being invited to participate in bar communications can really help members in their careers. Hollins noted that one way to encourage white, male members to help with the bar’s efforts to be inclusive is to phrase it in terms of mentoring and stress that you need their help.

In general, Robinson noted, white men can be powerful allies in stressing the importance of diversity and inclusion. “I believe you need white men to talk to white men about white men,” she said. “Stop trying to make women talk to men [about diversity and inclusion].”