Those were the memorable words of Rodney King in 1992, uttered in an effort to quell the riots that took place in Los Angeles following his beating. That was almost 25 years ago. So… how are we doing since then? I would submit that while we have made progress in some areas, it seems to me that contention and anger are more common now than I remember in my 60 years of life.
What is going on? Why can’t we all just get along? As a society, we are quick to anger. If the car ahead of us on the freeway is going too slow all too frequently our response is to tailgate and pass by with a choice gesture (no… not a “thumbs up!”) to the other driver. What if, instead, we took a deep breath and considered that there may be a very good reason they are going slow? When opposing counsel is late on their discovery responses, there are some attorneys who are very quick to fire off a nasty meet and confer letter. What if, instead, we picked up the phone (in a spirit of empathy and inquiry) to find out what was going on? Even something as small as the smell of the food in the break room how many times do we find ourselves “annoyed” by the smell of an unfamiliar food instead of being curious about something new and different?
You may be asking yourself, what does this have to do with diversity? Well, quite a bit. Compassion and empathy for others — whether they are like us or not— is at the core of encouraging diversity. These examples show how far we have to go, both in our daily lives and our profession. It takes restraint, effort and practice to get along. The good news is, not only can we do it, but as attorneys we are committed to it. Indeed, as attorneys we have a unique view of what happens in society when we do not commit to these goals. For example, I have an attorney friend who fell on hard times and recently spent a few months in the West County Detention Facility. He now knows what the system is like from the inside and outside. He described how horribly segregated the inmates are required to be— for their own safety.
I found that profoundly sad for many reasons. Some of those reasons were personal. I grew up and began my practice in Hawaii— a place with many diverse cultures, religions and beliefs. That experience showed me better than anything else what riches are to be gained when we open ourselves up to people with different ideas, values and ways of life. Additionally, I overcame an early childhood learning disability; an experience that taught me many valuable lessons, not the least of which was to value those that society considered “different” or “disabled.” Other reasons were more systemic and were based on the hope that we, as a larger society, are not headed toward that level of degradation.
As lawyers, we not only have the skills to effect change, but we also have an obligation to change things for the better, both in the legal system and in our society as a whole. We can each do our part to help society and the legal profession be a place of respect, inclusiveness and diversity.
Last year I had the privilege of working with Robin Pearson, former CCCBA President, current leader of the CCCBA Diversity Committee and current chair of the State Bar Council on Access and Fairness. We hosted Paulette Brown, then president of the ABA, to speak at one of our bar events. For those who were able to be there, you may remember what an inspiring speech she gave. Her topic was: “The Status of Women and People of Color Practicing Law Around the World.” Among other things, Paulette noted that the legal profession is still one of the least diverse of all comparable professions. She not only pointed out the work ahead of us with respect to being a more diverse bar, she also challenged us to rise to the occasion.
So… what can we do to meet this great challenge? The truth is that there is a lot we can all be doing every day. We can each do our part to understand each other better. We can all benefit from listening and appreciating the views and ideas of those who have backgrounds and perspectives which differ from our own.
We can also use our positions (in our companies, our firms, our communities) to work toward greater diversity and inclusion. For example, last year I served as one of the leaders of the diversity committee for the Corporate Law Department at my company. In that role I encouraged our attorneys to join local and national specialty bar associations and to get more involved in the diversity sections of their local and state bars.
Maybe you are thinking “that is too much,” or “I can’t do that,” or “how can I effect change to help make this world — and profession — more inclusive?”
May I suggest three things that we can do this year to help us increase the diversity and inclusiveness in the practice of law?
1) Make an effort to get to know people who are not like you. Get outside your established group of friends and colleagues and learn something new about someone who is different than you. Join a group that holds opinions different from your own or a group that could benefit from your experiences. Join a specialty bar association or you could join the CCCBA’s diversity committee and help us plan more diversity programs and events for the CCCBA.
2) Make an effort to understand implicit bias and how it affects everyday interactions. Read articles about implicit bias or maybe even take the Harvard Implicit Bias Test to better understand your own biases.
3) Make an effort not just to understand people’s ideas, opinions or values, but also WHY they hold those ideas, opinions or values. Do this whether you personally share that opinion or not. This will create a better understanding of that person (and increased empathy for that person) which leads to a higher tolerance of differences. This, in turn, can lead to a more peaceful, more diverse professional community.
In the end, diversity, inclusion, compassion and empathy are the keys to creating change. Let’s resolve to do our best to get along, understand one another, be peacemakers and treat others like we want to be treated. As we do, life and the law will be rich and full.
Philip M. Andersen is the Managing Attorney of the State Farm Insurance Company In-House Litigation Department in Pleasanton. (Philip M. Andersen & Associates). He has extensive litigation and trial experience defending policy holders in personal injury lawsuits. He has been managing in-house insurance litigation offices since 1994. Contact Phil at (925) 225-6838 or firstname.lastname@example.org.