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February 04, 2023

5 ways to advance gender diversity in law

Bias is a much talked about and documented reality in the legal profession, especially when it comes to the dearth of women and people of color in leadership positions. While change has been glacially slow in improving diversity, equity and inclusion, there are ways to push the needle in the right direction.

A diverse panel shared solutions from their lived experiences at the Feb. 3 program “Extending Justice 2: Strategies to Increase Inclusion and Reduce Bias (A Focus on Gender),” sponsored by the American Bar Association Criminal Justice Section at the 2023 ABA Midyear Meeting in New Orleans.

The program was the second installment of ABA presentations inspired by the book “Extending Justice: Strategies to Increase Inclusion and Reduce Bias,” co-authored by Bernice Donald, a retired judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, and panel moderator Sarah Redfield, a professor at the University of New Hampshire.

“When we have these conversations (about bias), you have to be a little uncomfortable. If you don’t push the envelope, then no change is going to be made,” said ABA President-elect Mary Smith in introductory remarks.

While the military has made great strides in diversifying its ranks in race, “gender is where the military really has had a challenge,” said Susan Upward, a lawyer and lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps.

The statistics are dismal for the number of women who are equity partners, managing partners, law school deans and lead counsel on cases, said Cynthia Orr, managing partner at Goldstein, Goldstein, Hilley & Orr, San Antonio, Texas.

She and the other panelists offered the following strategies to combat bias:

Create in-groups. Put together a small group with a shared interest or identity and various strengths to collaborate as a team, Orr said. They can be an asset to a trial team. “When you create your own in-group it’s amazing how successful you can be,” she added.

Use your in-group to your advantage. Turn to them for advice and support when faced with difficulties and challenges, Redfield advised. “Seek out those who will go that extra step with you” and get feedback.

Lift others up. Give them opportunities to shine, said Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, director of the Indian Legal Clinic and associate clinical professor of law at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. Encourage them to take leadership positions and hone their skills.

Regularly take the pulse of the profession. Tannera Gibson, a lawyer at Burch Porter Johnson in Memphis, Tennessee, supported the use of surveys to find out the climate for women in the profession and to identify issues that need to be addressed. Beyond that, follow-through is essential, Gibson said. “We will make hires and say good things. But we will convince ourselves we’re making progress when we’re actually not making progress and following through on all the things we need to do.”

Push back against the norms. Be intentional about combating bias, Gibson said. Participate in trainings and webinars to learn more about it. Help open the pipeline to the profession by recruiting women and people of color from Historically Black Colleges and Universities and smaller law firms and law schools.

Andrew Grosso, principal attorney, Andrew Grosso & Associates, Washington, D.C., also appeared on the program.