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February 03, 2020

Moving Beyond the Illusion of Inclusion: Appreciating the Importance and Value of Inclusion in Creating a Diverse Profession

Denise M. Sharperson

Vernā Myers, vice president of inclusion strategy for Netflix, has been credited with the quote: “Diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance.” The legal profession remains one of the least diverse professions in the United States, so the question of diversity comes up frequently and is debated often by legal practitioners, law school professors, and diversity officers. Yet, at the present time, there is not that much figurative partying and dancing in the legal community.

Even with this robust debate, the term “diversity” is still somewhat the new buzzword in the legal environment. Diversity has been defined over the past several decades by experts using different terminology, but Webster’s Dictionary definesdiversity as“valuing differences of individuals.” Though the definition may vary from person to person, it is at least agreed that diversity has several dimensions beyond just identity, race, or gender. As human beings, we all embrace some dimension of diversity . . . even married, white, heterosexual, Protestant men.

To move the diversity and inclusion (D&I) needle significantly toward the direction of achievement, we must be intentional about words and deeds. In many places throughout the United States, in the D&I space, we are stuck somewhere along the continuum of “tolerance” and “celebration.” Far too frequently the cringe-worthy phrase “tolerating differences” is spoken by many leaders and human resource professionals as though that concept is something to be lauded. Are there persons from whom this is the best we can expect? Sure. But “tolerating” is not the language of leaders trying to drive D&I in the workplace. Rather, those words should be replaced with (the minimally acceptable standard of) “respecting the dignity of all humanity.”

The Necessity of Inclusion

As a diversity and inclusion practitioner, I often remind individuals that achieving “diversity” without creating an “inclusive” workplace will simply leave an organization with different people in the same place at the same time without a truly engaged and connected workforce. This certainly is not the goal of any organization that recognizes the true value and benefits of diversity and inclusion to the organization. Some of these benefits include: better problem solving, enhanced decision making, more collaboration, more creativity, and more productivity. Should you have any doubt whether diversity matters, imagine a room full of carpenters. It is safe to say their lens will view every problem as a nail and every solution as the hammer.

Yet, there are still some who unfortunately fail to acknowledge the importance of the “inclusion” factor when implementing a diversity plan. Throughout the years, I have observed the following critically important concepts in the area of diversity and inclusion:

  • Intentional diversity. When it is an integral part of an organization, diversity is not just a well-intentioned initiative or event to engage in once or twice a year. Rather, it requires consistent and dedicated full-time attention, just like other aspects of the business goals of a company. In our global society, diversity has become a business imperative.
  • Importance of inclusion. To unravel the value and engage in the full benefits of diversity, a workplace must be truly inclusive. Inclusion is the action behind diversity; the two are equally important and inextricably linked together. (See Kathleen B. Nalty’s Going All-In on Diversity and Inclusion: The Law Firm Leader’s Playbook, 2013.)
  • Moving beyond the illusion of inclusion. The responsibility for meaningful diversity and inclusion starts with the leadership but includes the entire organization, especially the employees. (Again, see Nalty.) It is a partnership that involves every facet of an organization and influences every department.

Becoming Proactive about Inclusion

For visible inclusion, proactive steps must be taken. The Honorable Rep. Shirley Chisolm, the first African American woman elected to the U.S. Congress, once said, “[i]f they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” In other words, inclusion involves assertive action. The failure of an individual to act or complacency of an individual will yield little results for the employee or the organization. It is, therefore, more than acceptable to invite yourself to a party already in progress by others. The illusion of inclusion means that diverse communities can no longer afford to simply sit patiently and wait to be asked to “dance.” Instead, diverse individuals should take a proactive approach by inserting themselves where they can within their organization.

In this regard, inclusion cannot be viewed as a one-way street. In fact, inclusion may more aptly be viewed as a series of merry-go-rounds situated next to one another, with people entering and exiting the rides at different points. It is important for all individuals to understand their authentic selves, remain true to who they are, and have an appreciation for what contributions they bring to a workplace. Likewise, it is important for organizations and entities to be open, accepting, and affirming; to be intentional about creating opportunities for “diverse” lawyers; and to continually self-audit their diversity efforts.

Although easily stated, these efforts are not always effortlessly implemented. Well-intentioned D&I initiatives can fall short. Diverse individuals can become lonely, disillusioned, and disappointed when not invited by leaders of an organization, employers, or co-workers to become full members of the team. Far too often, diverse lawyers will receive less-than-ideal assignments or not get the “ask” to join boards or commitments, attend networking events, speak on industry panels, or attend conferences. When a diverse employee feels excluded or not valued, the employee may eventually leave the employer, organization, or bar association. Such a result is the complete antithesis of diversity and inclusion objectives. In the context of legal employers, this will result in increased costs related to the recruiting, hiring, and onboarding of new employees. The actual cost to replace an employee has been estimated to be as high as 150 percent of an employee’s salary.

Diversity and Inclusion for Solos and Small Firms

For solos and small firm practitioners, creating a diverse and inclusive workplace may not seem important given the size of the work setting. Your daily interaction may only be with your clients and office staff (if any). However, I encourage you to look at D&I through a much broader lens.

First, if you make D&I a core personal value, it will naturally become a value for the setting you are in (to the extent that you are an owner or manager). Second, once D&I is a core value, you can implement this as a policy of your firm or solo practice. Third, you can put it into action with a D&I plan. Trust me, you don’t have to go overboard with a plan that collects dust on a shelf or remains unopened in a computer file.

The plan can be as simple as a list of actions items such as seeking out diverse vendors, recruiting diverse law school summer interns, and attending more events of diverse bar organizations. Similarly, if you are an attorney who might be categorized in this country as “minority” or “diverse,” your plan might include becoming a leader of a committee or section of your state bar association and beginning to market or advertise your services to communities or people with whom you don’t regularly come into contact.

In both scenarios an action item could be “diversity dining”—simply having a meal with someone who is different (in appearance or characteristic) from you. If you are heterosexual, dine with a colleague who is gay. If you are Christian, break bread with a someone who is Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu. It is that simple: Get to know the “other.” It is imperative to make sure that you are developing yourself and increasing opportunities for the growth of your career and practice. Becoming an attorney who is culturally competent and comfortable in diverse settings is one way to differentiate yourself in a very competitive and crowded profession.

So, how can you, as a busy solo or small firm practitioner, have a seat at the table or invite yourself to dance at the party while managing a busy practice? Here are five quick suggestions:

  1. Know yourself, be yourself. It all starts here. You want to ensure professional and maybe personal failure? Try to be someone that you are not, or try to be what someone else wants you to be. Your body and mind will only tolerate this unhealthy behavior for so long. Become aware of your authentic self—warts, blemishes, and shortcoming, positive attributes and qualities alike. Accept these things and let the world know that the true you is ready to shine. Any place, person, or organization that cannot accept the true you is not ready for you. Don’t waste your time, talent, or energy in that space.
  2. Expand your boundaries: Publish. If you haven’t really published or written anything for public consumption, offer to write an article for a bar association publication or business industry magazine on a topic related to your subject matter expertise. Be forewarned! If you are “diverse” or “minority” or “of color,” be prepared for implicit bias to rear its head as it relates to “standards of quality” of the particular publication. Listen politely to what amounts to cognitive dissonance, but don’t let this microaggressive behavior cause you to say no. Deal with the diatribe and then turn in the stellar submission that only your diverse voice can offer.
  3. Expand your boundaries: Speak. Yes, that’s right, I’m suggesting me for this panel! Any reason I should not? I have subject matter knowledge. I have been to many of your panels before, and they just don’t have diversity of views—yes, they are all male and white. Look, even though it’s the same subject matter, I offer a different way of looking at this as an Asian American female. Not to mention 49 percent of our state bar consists of women. What’s that? Yes, I will e-mail my bio to you today. I’m looking forward to participating.
  4. Expand your network: Position yourself to join a nonprofit board. Boards often look for lawyers to serve as trustees or directors. Can you imagine the social impact you could have on an organization and community by serving on a board? Can you imagine the type of unofficial role model you could become to diverse employees of the organization if the board currently lacks diversity? Just a quick caveat: If you are extended this privilege of board service, remember not to mix the role of board member and organization/board attorney. You are being asked to serve as the former, not the latter. A further caveat: If you become an unofficial role model, you are just that. Not a coach or mentor or recipient of discrimination complaints just because of a certain characteristic you have in common.
  5. Expand your knowledge base. Don’t fool yourself by thinking that, as the go-to attorney for expert advice, you are the wise sage and keeper of all knowledge. You aren’t. Learn something new and different. It can be something within the profession, parallel to the profession, or totally unrelated to the profession. However, by learning something new and challenging, it will introduce you to new people and will exercise your brainpower. But more important, it will cause you to “include” yourself in a place or environment where you told yourself you don’t belong.


For diversity and inclusion efforts to be truly be effective, we are all responsible for ensuring that everyone is accepted, appreciated, and actively engaged. Make sure there is a seat at the table for everyone—even if you have to bring your own folding chair.

Published in GPSolo, Volume 36, Number 4, July/August © 2019 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved.

Published in GPSolo, Volume 36, Number 4, July/August © 2019 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved.

This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.

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Denise M. Sharperson, Esq.

Certified Diversity Professional

Denise M. Sharperson, Esq., is a Certified Diversity Professional and previously served in a dual role as the assistant general counsel/first director of diversity initiatives for the New Jersey State Bar Association in New Brunswick for five years. Sharperson is an attorney admitted to practice law in the State of New Jersey and State of Pennsylvania. She is a member of the American Bar Association; Association of Black Women Lawyers of New Jersey, Inc.; Garden State Bar Association; and Morris County Bar Association.