Law Firms, Let’s Talk About Systemic Racism

In the most recent episode of The Advisory Board, Casetext CEO Jake Heller met with law firm leaders in diversity and inclusion — Wendell Taylor of Hunton Andrews Kurth, Cindy-Ann Thomas of Littler, and Lois Durant of Sheppard Mullin — to learn more about the legal industry’s role in combating systemic racism. 

The conversation was prompted by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, and the wave of protests and increase in public support for the Black Lives Matter movement that followed. Jake’s first question for the panel was how those recent events have shifted conversations within the legal industry. 

Wendell kicked off the discussion by describing how the video of George Floyd’s death at the hands of the police changed the conversation by serving as a call to action for many law firms and corporations as well as individuals. Law firms and attorneys are now looking at ways they can be involved externally — through philanthropy, pro bono work, or the legal system — as well as within their organizations. “Every firm and company is looking at ways they can be more inclusive, and looking at this issue of systemic racism and police brutality, and they want to help,” Wendell said. 

Lois added that one of the biggest shifts she’s perceived within those conversations is that people are no longer using euphemisms to talk about racism, and instead are having more honest conversations about the experience of Black people in the United States. “That just makes having the conversation easier and more productive,” Lois said, “because you’re not doing mental gymnastics to figure out how to describe something without using words that people are uncomfortable hearing.” 

Part of having that conversation involves looking inward, Cindy-Ann said. She described how she is seeing an acknowledgement of systemic racism in many institutions outside of law enforcement and the criminal justice system. “Organizations are now painfully, painfully aware that the catalyst for this national and global outcry is not limited to the explicit practices that exist within law enforcement institutions,” she said. She describes how recent conversations within law firms and other organizations place a newfound importance on public accountability, and actually using words like marginalization, racial injustice, and inequity. “They are not nuanced, which is refreshing in many ways.”

As part of those efforts to be publicly accountable, countless law firms and corporations have released public statements of support. Sometimes, though, those statements fail to use the honest language the panel described. As Wendell put it, “It’s like we’re all looking at these statements with a Bingo card in front of us. The Bingo card has things like racism, bias, police brutality, white privilege, systematic racism. You don’t have to hit every one to fill the Bingo card, but if you make a statement and you don’t hit any boxes, it’s like the reverse Bingo — somebody stands up and says, ‘This isn’t it.’” 

A willingness to publicly show support externally and have these candid conversations internally is just the first step for law firms to make meaningful changes. “There’s systemic racism that affects our society, but our organizations are not immune from the effects of systemic racism,” Lois said. “I think you have to look externally — you have to express your support and think about supporting organizations — but you also have to look at your own infrastructure and your own processes.” 

For more on Wendell, Cindy-Ann, and Lois’s discussion about the legal industry’s role in these conversations, click here to watch episode 2 of The Advisory Board

You can also sign up for an email reminder for Episode 3 here