September 25, 2020 Chair's Column

Having the Tough Conversations

By Maureen Mulligan

One would think that, as lawyers, we are poised to have the tough conversations. Our jobs require us to identify a problem, find the root cause, and explore solutions. In our work, reaching resolution requires open dialogue to make sure we understand what is really at the epicenter of a dispute. We ask the hard questions and we probe until we understand what is driving the discontent. Then, with that new understanding, we figure out how to talk about the problem in order to reach resolution. If we know how to have tough conversations, why is the legal profession failing so miserably at having conversations about gender, race, and ethnicity that result in meaningful change?

Instituting policies, practices, and procedures is not working to close the gender gap, a gap that is even wider for women of color than for white women. To truly have an inclusive profession, we need to understand each other’s experiences in the workplace and in the larger community. To do that, we need to talk. My experience may be different from yours, and yours may be different from that of the person down the hall. Lawyers in corporate legal departments, law firms, nonprofits, government agencies, and courthouses need to start talking to each other to open up the dialogue about gender, race, and ethnicity in the workplace to impact a culture shift in the practice of law. We certainly know the facts and the statistics, but do we know how the people we work with feel about their position in the profession? Do we know how particular talk, comments, actions, and beliefs influence and create a culture that influences or detracts from an opportunity for advancement and success?

A new study researched and written by Destiny Peery, Paulette Brown, and Eileen Letts released over the summer, titled Left Out and Left Behind: The Hurdles, Hassles, and Heartaches of Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women of Color, makes a number of recommendations for how to address the lack of significant progress for women and diverse attorneys in the practice of law. But the overarching thread through all of those recommendations is that the profession must change its culture in order to better support a diverse population of attorneys.

We close with a call for the legal profession to move to the next step of its diversity efforts toward inclusion, and true inclusion will require changes to the legal profession’s culture and the structure of decision-making in these spaces. And the importance of addressing culture cannot be understated, as no amount of fixing only policies, practices, and procedures can lead to the depth of change needed to achieve diversity and inclusion goals. Without cultural change, diversity efforts will stall in the very places they have already stalled in the legal profession.

So how do we effect a cultural change? We need to understand all aspects of the existing culture. To do that we need to have open and honest conversations about the barriers to change.

Michele Coleman Mayes led the study that produced the Commission’s report This Talk Isn’t Cheap: Women of Color and White Women Attorneys Find Common Ground. This report and the accompanying tool kit provide a guide to improving conversations about gender, race, and ethnicity, also referred to as intersectionality, so that all women can work together in combating the barriers to advancement in the legal profession. The report is intended to provide an effective learning experience and resource for women lawyers or anyone seeking to open a dialogue about gender, race, and ethnicity in their workplace. This study will be published soon, and the authors of the study hope that through open and ongoing dialogue, lawyers will be able to foster a greater understanding and respect for one another and “create a more inclusive, just, and equitable society.” This report provides tools to have conversations about race, gender, and ethnicity; conversations that often do not get started because we are not comfortable with discomfort; conversations that often do not get started because we are uncomfortable with discontent.

So, let’s talk. Let’s have those conversations that provide a bit of discomfort and listen, learn, and build trust. Use the tools provided in This Talk Isn’t Cheap to start the conversations. Let’s be intentional in our conversations to start the road to culture change. That is what I plan to do during my first term as chair of the Commission on Women in the Profession. Please join me.


By Maureen Mulligan

Maureen Mulligan, a partner at Peabody & Arnold LLP in Boston, Massachusetts, just started her first term as chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession. The studies described here can be found on the American Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession website. There is a wealth of information to guide you in your conversations. Please reach out. We want to hear about your conversations.