chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
January 14, 2022 Vol. 47, No. 3

What if the bar matches the community … and neither is diverse in race and ethnicity?

By Marilyn Cavicchia
Michelle A. Behnke (left) and Jocelyn Armstrong (right)

Michelle A. Behnke (left) and Jocelyn Armstrong (right)

Often, when we talk about diversity, equity and inclusion for bars, the focus is on resolving a mismatch between the bar and the community, where the bar membership or the local legal profession in general is not representative of the surrounding area.

But many bars are in a different situation: Their membership demographics are similar to those of their community, in terms of race and ethnicity—and neither has much diversity. In a case like that, is there still a meaningful role that a bar can play in highlighting and working toward DEI?

To answer this question, and to offer some ideas for how a non-diverse bar in a non-diverse area could get started, Bar Leader recently spoke with Michelle A. Behnke and Jocelyn Armstrong. Behnke is chair of the ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession and of the ABA Presidential Appointment Committee and a past president of the State Bar of Wisconsin. Armstrong is director of inclusion and outreach at the Ohio State Bar Association and a past president of the John Mercer Langston Bar Association, an affinity bar for Black lawyers in Columbus. Here’s what they told us about why DEI is for everyone—and how to get started.

Tip 1: Seek to understand what may be hindering diversity within the community.

A lack of diversity in the surrounding area may seem like an unchangeable fact—or at least, one that a bar is in no position to change. But Behnke and Armstrong encourage bars to explore the reasons for this lack of diversity and whether there are some actions they can take.

Behnke speaks frequently with law students who express concern about exploring employment opportunities outside of metropolitan areas. They worry about whether there will be other young lawyers or young people in general with whom to socialize, she says, and whether there are opportunities to experience arts and culture. Another concern for lawyers from underrepresented groups, Behnke notes, is the availability of shops and services that speak to specific needs, such as culturally appropriate hairstyling services, clothing stores, and grocery and restaurant options.

A bar that wants to increase diversity in its area might do some research into what it takes to feel a sense of belonging in a community and then look at what is nearby, Behnke says, adding that it might find that the area has more to offer than it seems. The bar will then be able to address questions when someone is considering relocation into the community, she says. And whatever the results of this research, doing it at all says something important, she adds.

“The fact that the bar understood and took the time to get the information shows a willingness to be inclusive,” Behnke explains, “and will show those coming in that the community, even if not currently very diverse, wants to make this a welcoming place.”

Armstrong suggests looking for instances of microaggressions within the community that can make people feel unwelcome even if there seems to be no overt bias and prejudice. “Certainly, neighbors can choose to confront and correct the behaviors of those who are openly hostile to people of color,” she says. “Being an ally means standing alongside someone and standing up for them at times.”

Behnke notes that she has personally experienced microaggressions, such as when someone expresses surprise that she is an attorney or praises her for being “so articulate.”

In every area, regardless of how diverse it is, making meaningful change takes participation by people in the majority, not just those who are part of marginalized communities, Armstrong says. To help inspire bar leaders, community leaders, hiring partners, law school admissions officers, and others, she suggests considering how much potential is lost when a law student or new lawyer gravitates to a larger, more diverse city where they feel more welcome.

“How many homogenous areas have learning opportunities that aren’t accessed because the communities are not, or don’t appear welcoming and inclusive?” she asks.

Tip 2: Look for new opportunities to facilitate learning.

Implicit bias affects everyone and can become especially entrenched when someone lacks daily interactions that help challenge it, Armstrong says. Lawyers, especially, should seek opportunities to confront their own biases, she adds—and bars can create and facilitate opportunities to do just that. 

Lawyers deal with facts regularly,” she explains. “Lawyers are also trained to be analytical and interrogate thoughts and beliefs—their own should be part of the self-reflection and interrogation.”

For bars in areas that lack diversity, Armstrong recommends learning from books, movies, podcasts, and other forms of media that are focused on and written and/or produced by members of whatever community the bar wants to learn about.

“Our Young Lawyers Section read Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, and then we had a movie screening at a local theater followed by a panel discussion,” Armstrong notes. “It was well attended by members across the state and from varied practice and age groups.”

A bar in a less diverse area could do the same thing, she recommends; libraries and streaming services can provide the basis for many free or low-cost education options.

Behnke suggests facilitating discussions with lawyers from underrepresented groups. A bar in a homogenous area could seek out any nearby affinity bars or look for diverse groups from other professions, she says. Whoever is involved in the discussion, she adds, the bar should be open to hearing their experiences.

“Often, people want to assume that there are no issues in their community, and they are ‘shocked’ when someone shares an experience that shows bias and discrimination,” Behnke says. “I am always puzzled when people say that they are ‘shocked.’”

All too often, Behnke adds, the discomfort and surprise from hearing about bias and discrimination can lead to misguided efforts to “fix” the unpleasant experience that the diverse attorney has shared by trying to explain it away.

“Those who seek to be allies must learn to listen and accept what they hear as real experiences,” Behnke says. “Only when they understand that these are real issues in their community can they really begin to think about ways to address the issues.”

Tip 3: Consider whether there’s a place for the bar in national discussions of racial inequity.

Even if the demographics of a bar’s area mean that there are relatively few chances for racial inequity close to home, Behnke and Armstrong say that the nationwide discussions that have occurred since the murder of George Floyd are relevant to all lawyers and their bars.

Lawyers are leaders who sit in seats of influence. Lawyers have been at the forefront of social change for years: Thurgood Marshall, Constance Baker Motley, Mary Bonauto—the list is long,” Armstrong says. “We have been trained to view situations from varied angles and plan for as many contingencies as possible.

“Lawyers are also educators (sometimes grudgingly). We are trusted for our knowledge. While no one can be an expert on all things, we can learn and advocate on behalf of others. We can also amplify voices of marginalized individuals in spaces where they aren’t usually heard.”

Behnke calls on bars to tap into their power to educate the public and to convene lawyers and others. “I think bars can play an important role because many of the issues that we face are based in law or how laws are applied,” she says. “Lawyers have the expertise to explain how laws work and how systems work.

“Discussing how laws have changed over time and what additional changes might be needed is a role for lawyers, and bars are the collection of lawyers and are in a position to speak for the profession in their locale.”

Tip 4: Don’t forget that DEI includes more than race and ethnicity.

A bar in an area that lacks racial and ethnic diversity might find that it can do meaningful work in addressing the many other forms of difference that are under the DEI umbrella, Behnke and Armstrong say—and these other differences are too often overlooked.

“Neurodiversity is often overlooked because we can’t see it,” Armstrong says, responding to the example of Haley Moss, an autistic lawyer in Florida who speaks on DEI topics.

When it comes to physical disability, she adds, we tend to focus only on ADA compliance. “We don’t dig deeper into how we interact with disabled individuals and how to include them,” Armstrong says. “Often, it means asking what is helpful instead of deciding we know best because we’re able-bodied. We’ll never fully understand, but listening, empathy, and basic human respect mean so much.”

Agrees Behnke, “Diversity, in my view, is the effort to bring any and all marginalized groups into a place where they are welcome, involved and have a sense of belonging. In one place, that might require work to include racially and ethnically diverse lawyers. In another place, that might mean working to include women or younger lawyers.

“Diversity and inclusion is not a one size fits all. The efforts you make to include one group may not be effective in attracting and including another group.”

Tip 5: Look for partners—and make sure to treat them as partners.

Partnering with other groups to share knowledge and resources can be a great strategy, Behnke and Armstrong say; logical places to start include any affinity bars in the area, other professional organizations, and community organizations such as Urban League, Centro Hispano, NAACP, Boys & Girls Club, and United Way.

“When working with partners, be sure that you engage with them to ask what they think would be useful in terms of connecting,” Behnke advises. “If the homogeneous bar comes in ‘dictating’ what it believes is needed to increase diversity in the area, the partners may not be willing to engage and certainly won’t see this as a partnership.”

Similar care should be taken when building partnerships with any diverse members of the bar, Armstrong says. “If a member is only contacted by their bar to speak during Black History Month or Pride Month, that seems like tokenism,” she notes. “Are the people of color or those from other marginalized communities given opportunities to be section leaders or board members?”

Armstrong also cautions against expecting a lawyer of color to do all the “heavy lifting” of educating others within the bar, on top of their daily load of billable hours. “Even when the person is a DEI practitioner, understanding their humanity and need for breaks is important,” she says. “Certainly, those individuals can contribute to the efforts, but true change occurs when everyone is on board.”

The material in all ABA publications is copyrighted and may be reprinted by permission only. Request reprint permission here.