The mask

How cultures of conformity hurt diversity — and the firm’s bottom line

How cultures of conformity hurt diversity — and the firm’s bottom line - Photo by Lisa Predko
By Paul Dailing

See the 2018 Chicago Lawyer Diversity Survey results

Lindsey Dates once went out with co-workers at his first firm for a night of drinks, bonding, blowing off steam and light shop talk of the variety all lawyers know.

A song the young associate had never heard before came over the jukebox. Without notice or warning, every single member of his group — his all-white group — burst into song, chanting along unbidden that good times never seemed so good (So good! So good! So good!).

That was the day Dates, now a partner at Barnes & Thornburg and president of diversity nonprofit The Chicago Committee, learned the effect “Sweet Caroline” has on white people.

Michelle Silverthorn, the diversity and education director for the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism, burst out laughing as she heard the story.

“And ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ and ‘Living on a Prayer,’” she added.

Call it code switching. Call it playing the game. Call it the mask. But lawyers of color, women in law, lawyers from other countries, LGBTQ lawyers know the effects of constant assimilation into a profession that, according to 2017 Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, is 88.6 percent white.

Silverthorn has seen through outreach work at Chicago area law schools that these issues affect lawyers before they are lawyers.

“One of the students asked how much longer do we have to continue not being our authentic selves in the workplace?” Silverthorn said. “How much longer do we have to work harder than everyone else? How much longer do we have to be presumed to be incompetent and that we’re only there because of affirmative action?”

Sandra Yamate, executive director of the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession, said it’s more than conversations about golf if you don’t like golf.

She gave the example of a workplace chat about getting kids into a good school. Most lawyers can relate and can add to the conversation, but a lawyer also mentioning their worries about the social effects of making their child a rare student of color in a predominantly white environment could turn the talk uncomfortable.

The choice becomes whether to make co-workers uncomfortable or sublimate a concern that’s important for you. Many, she said, choose the latter.

“I think that it adds a level of stress that makes life at some point really unbearable. You are constantly having to pretend to be someone that you’re not,” Yamate said. “It can range from how you speak, how you dress, how you present yourself, the things you can share about yourself with the people you spend eight to 10 hours a day with.”

Silverthorn said this pressure to adjust to firm culture is a harder fit for people whose backgrounds don’t match the dominant firm culture.

“It’s not hiding that you don’t like sports or can’t play golf. It’s hiding a huge part of who you are as a person. I think everyone puts on some kind of mask when they go into the workplace, but I think [it’s more severe] when that mask covers a huge part of who you are,” she said.

This can be the case even in well-meaning firms, she said.

“Every company, every organization is going to have a culture and it’s going to be very hard for people who are part of that organization, particularly when they are part of the majority culture … it might be hard for people to see what it looks like from someone else’s perspective,” Silverthorn said.

Yamate compared having a co-worker you dislike — it’s OK in small doses, but having to work in that environment for days, weeks, months, years could have you answering the phone more quickly when headhunters call.

And people are answering that call.

In the Institute for Inclusion’s 2017 report on “The State of Diversity and Inclusion in the Legal Profession,” the group identified retention as a major sticking point for diversity. It’s not just hiring lawyers of color, women and people who identify as LGBTQ; it’s keeping them.

“Unless organizations begin to create a business climate that openly welcomes those who are in some way different from the existing group, they will continue to experience costly turnover as new talent leaves to find a more hospitable environment,” the report states.

Who you really are

Dates has a rule about cultural assimilation into a law firm: Don’t.

“The culture of law firms will never change if every single one of us leaves our uniqueness at the front door,” he said.

As a litigator, Dates has seen some of his black peers code-switch, speaking and acting in a way that more reflects what they think the jury wants to hear than how they actually are as people. It rings false, he said, which is dangerous when success or failure depends on getting the jurors to trust you and your client.

“Let the court, let the jury see who you really are. Don’t sort of change the tone of your voice or anything like that. Let them see who you genuinely are,” he said.

That can be a difficult lesson for young lawyers starting out on their careers.

“At every law firm in America, you’ll hear about certain people being rock stars,” he said. “Those people are rarely diverse lawyers. If you look at those rock stars, it’s human instinct to see what’s been put out there as a model of success and try to emulate that model of success.”

Dates is also the current president of The Chicago Committee, a nonprofit that works with law firms and corporations to promote diversity in the legal profession. Housed in Bryan Cave’s Chicago office, one of the group’s stated goals is to “alleviate feelings of isolation at large law firms in the city.”

It can be isolating. Nationally, minorities made up 7.5 percent of law firm partners in 2015, according to the Institute for Inclusion. They were 5.6 percent of equity partners. Local rates for individual firms can be found in the 2018 Chicago Lawyer Diversity Survey.

Government and in-house work can offer more hospitable climes for attorneys of color, Silverthorn said.

“A lot of black women, for example, go into government work,” she said.

In-house work in recent years has also become a major destination for people of color and women leaving firms. According to the Association of Corporate Counsel’s 2015 global census, women make up 49.5 percent of all in-house lawyers, “including both entry-level and senior positions.”

That same year, the National Association for Law Placement found women made up 44.7 percent of associates, but only 21.5 percent of partners. The percentage of minority partners? 7.5 percent. The percentage of minority female partners? 2.6 percent.

Silverthorn listed off a few companies that have voluntarily made diversity a priority as, in her words “they genuinely believe it’s a good thing to do” — Microsoft, Office Depot, Kraft.

She also listed a few companies that made diversity a priority after negative publicity — Starbucks after two black businessmen waiting for a friend were arrested for trespassing at a Philadelphia outlet, Uber after a 2016 National Bureau of Economic Research study finding as much as 35 percent longer wait times for black riders, Google after a lawsuit earlier this year alleging an employee was fired for speaking out against racist and sexist comments in the company’s internal employee forums.

“For companies, a lot of the pressure [to embrace diversity] is coming from shareholders,” Silverthorn said. “When you look bad, your stock prices go down.”

Who loses in this? The law firms.

“You’re losing their networks, you’re losing their connections, you’re losing their clients.” Silverthorn said. “You’re losing access to a network that’s very different than the one you have access to.”

A bit of hope

Gray Mateo-Harris of Barnes & Thornburg is one of that 2.6 percent of minority female partners. Like Silverthorn, who came to the U.S. from Jamaica, Mateo-Harris is a naturalized citizen. She was born in the Dominican Republic and moved here when she was a young girl.

When she started her career, she tried to network and build her book the way mentors suggested. It rang false, she said.

“For me, rather than trying to conform to traditional forms of networking that have worked for male colleagues in my life or people who are not minorities — things like golf or sports-focused events or things that are not authentic to me” she said she prefers to make organic connections “doing things I enjoyed with people I enjoyed spending time with.”

She said following conventional wisdom of how lawyers conduct business isn’t always what the clients want either.

“There was a potential client whom I wanted to do work with for some time,” she said. “I had tried inviting her to Cubs games and to golf outings and to dinner at nice restaurants and I found that I couldn’t pin her down to do that. She was just constantly unavailable.”

Finally, Mateo-Harris reversed the situation, asking the client how she would like to connect.

“She said, ‘You know what would be great? It would be great if we could do a play date for our kids, because I’m not comfortable spending more time away from them,’” Mateo-Harris said.

The woman became a client — “a great one,” Mateo-Harris said. Shared, authentic conversations around things both parties cared about — in her case social justice and family — proved a better, stronger connection to potential clients than any golf outing or Cubs ticket.

In addition to her work with the Institute for Inclusion, Yamate is also chair-elect of the National Judicial College and one of the few people of color on the 21-member board.

“Initially, I think I was a little cautious about how engaged I wanted to be on a personal level with those people,” she said. “In time, I have come to find straight white men on this board utterly delightful. I might not always agree with them and they might not agree with me, but we’ve learned a lot from each other.”

She has started to see results from the work she and her fellow board members of color have put in, she said. Recently, the college was selecting a vendor. Several of the straight white men were the ones asking each potential hire about their diversity programs.

Silverthorn finds proof of progress close to home.

“I wear my natural hair now. I wouldn’t have done that five years ago, and certainly not 10 to 15 years ago,” she said. “We are getting there and it’s a hard road to travel.”

Cumulative effects

Mateo-Harris said one of the major factors facing people of color in law firms isn’t overt racism, but implicit bias, which refers to the assumptions and stereotypes that affect our actions and decisions in unconscious ways.

“There are people who may not realize they are excluding you, or may not realize they are judging you in a certain way because of their implicit biases,” she said.

Mateo-Harris made a choice early in her career to only work for firms where she felt she could be her authentic self. She has some advice for people of color looking to make the partnership path work.

“Some of my largest mentors are white men, some of my biggest sponsors throughout my career, and I think that can’t be underestimated, but I don’t think I would be where I am today as a partner without my network of black people, of black women, of just people of color to draw strength from in my everyday experience,” she said.

Yamate said trying to fit yourself into a homogenous firm culture can contribute to the burnout all lawyers face. All lawyers have job stress. Not all lawyers have to defend to co-workers why they talk, dress or act the way they do.

“A lot of times in dominant cultural America there’s an expectation that there is the norm and if you’re not in the norm you have to explain why you’re not in the norm — or embrace that norm,” she said. “You constantly have to assess how will this play, how will this be accepted, will they look at me askance.”

Relationships with clients or co-workers while the mask is on are possible, Dates said. But why do that?

“When you have your mask on and I have my mask on, that’s a relationship,” he said. “That’s playing the game. But neither of us will get as far as we would if we take our masks off.”

Silverthorn stresses that white allies are needed. Mateo-Harris said lawyers need to forge bonds over things they do share — kids and social justice, in her case. Dates said lawyers need to forge greater personal connections, like play dates for kids or inviting your co-workers over for dinner.

All nodded in understanding at a recent Chicago Lawyer roundtable on race when a black female partner told a story about her first firm trotting her out for a meeting as a young associate because the potential client was black.

Interviewed weeks after the roundtable, Yamate paused when recalling the woman’s anecdote.

“Strategically we have maybe made a mistake in emphasizing business development alone as the benefit of diversity. It is a benefit,” she said.

Yamate said the true benefit of diversity is not tapping different client bases, or about utopian notions of doing the right thing, she said. It’s about a law firm removing these invisible barriers that drive the best and brightest to corporations or competitors. It’s about allowing the best to rise so the clients benefit, Yamate said.

“Diversity is not about taking one group to helping another. It’s not about advancing one group because they’ve been underrepresented,” she said. “At the end of the day, it’s all about serving clients.”