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November 19, 2021

The Section

By Kelly M. Dermody

Greetings Section members, and welcome to my first Chair’s column! It is quite a time to be serving as a volunteer leader of a volunteer bar association, but I have been amazed and inspired by the energy and commitment our members bring to our Section. As we have seen over the last 18 months, our country needs informed, adaptive, and culturally competent labor and employment lawyers more than ever.

Like many of you, I am seeing the effects of Covid-19 burnout everywhere. Many workers, including lawyers and legal professionals, are exhausted from new and rapidly-evolving job and family expectations. Although the economy has opened up, working parents and caregivers continue to run a gauntlet of health and safety risks to get themselves and their loved ones through the day. Frontline workers, who have spent over 18 months steeped in disease and death, now defer processing their own trauma in order to handle even more responsibility during staffing crunches and viral surges in 2021. And managers everywhere, subject to the very same external stressors as their staff, are tasked to create cultures of “wellness” almost comically dissociated from their own devastating fatigue.

Is it any surprise that large segments of the workforce are ready to resign? This moment has challenged us to reach deep into our reserves to keep moving forward productively.

For those of us coming from communities that have historically been underrepresented, it has been an especially poignant time to evaluate whether our careers are working for us. In jobs with few people or leaders who share our demographics or life experiences, the demand on us to adapt and fit in has sometimes tested our capacity. In these times, the old shout-outs to resilience are not landing so true.

As the first LGBTQ+-identified Chair in our Section’s history, but a person who is also White and cisgender, I have had a lifetime to think about the significance of being inside and outside the circle of belonging. And being outside is painful and exhausting. Workplaces that replicate these experiences are draining our reservoirs of human potential.

But this is where our profession, and our Section, can make a profound difference. Over the last several years, and accelerated last year by a global pandemic and the racial reckoning that followed the murder of George Floyd, our profession’s dogged commitment to “tradition” has begun to crack. We have had important discussions about legacies of exclusion and systemic inequity. We have recognized that workplaces that are disconnected to the authentic lives of workers are less productive and that turnover is a given if we do not create belonging across difference and sustain people with honorable benefits and pay. And we have noticed that Generation Z is coming into jobs with no patience for injustice and an urgency to fix a world they believe may be headed for environmental and social disaster. We must adapt and help our clients navigate these waves of change.

So, in the midst of so much upheaval, where do we look for hope? I have been asking this a lot lately. In our Section, one does not have to look far, as our Section has been leading on these critical conversations. For example, thanks to the tireless work of our Conference Planning Committee, the 2021 Annual Section Conference amplifies and addresses the urgent workplace questions of our time. The Section, and all of us who are its members, are indebted to the leaders on our Committee who, along with our Track Coordinators, spent this past year planning this amazing content: Co-Chairs Laurie Burgess, M. Carter DeLorme, Michele Fisher, Hon. Stephanie M. Jones and Sonya Richburg; Vice-Chairs Mia Belk, Nicole (Nikki) Decter, Jeffrey A. Dretler, Karen Mock and Anne B. Shaver; Emeritae Co-Chairs Pamela Devi Chandran and Vanessa Kelly; and Section Council Liaisons Louis Lopez, George Washington and Melissa Woods. Importantly, none of our ABA work would be possible without the virtually 24-7 commitment of our incredible LEL Section staff, led by Director Brad Hoffman, with Associate Director Rose Ashford, Program Specialist Nafisat (Fifi) Adekola, and Office Administrator Gema Zaragoza.

In addition to the invigorating vision of the Conference planners and the unparalleled commitment of our Section staff, I see inspiration all around our Section, including in this year’s amazing Section awardees: Hon. Gwynne A. Wilcox (Hon. Bernice B. Donald Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Legal Profession Award), Louis Lopez (Federal Labor and Employment Attorney of the Year Award), Daniel Nielsen (Arvid  Anderson Public Sector Labor and Employment Attorney of the Year Award), Kyle E. Simmons (Section New/Young Lawyer Award), and the Disaster Legal Assistance Collaborative (Frances Perkins Public Service Award). Inspiration also reverberates from the leadership of our inaugural Section Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officers Pamela Devi Chandran and (Section Vice Chair) Joseph J. Torres, and in the Section’s new Affinity Groups, where the Section is facilitating networks of lawyers of color, women lawyers, LGBTQ+ lawyers, lawyers with disabilities, and new/young lawyers. And it is radiating from brand new law school graduates just coming into the profession, including seasoned Section volunteers like 2021 graduate Michaela Posner, who has served in Section governance even before beginning her new career this fall as a union and employee lawyer.

Despite our challenges, and there are many, the future is bright for our profession if we can find our inspiration and meet the moment. The people in this Section give me hope we can.

Kelly M. Dermody

Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein, LLP

Kelly M. Dermody, is Managing Partner of the San Francisco office of Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein, LLP. She is Chair of the ABA Section of Labor and Employment Law. Kelly specializes in civil rights and employment class and collective actions on behalf of plaintiffs, and individual cases addressing sexual abuse, harassment, and trafficking.

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