For what seems like an eternity (though in reality has only been a few short months), I have grappled with the thought of writing a piece to flesh out my thoughts on diversity and inclusion practices in the legal field in light of my experience as a young, female, African-American attorney in the heart of the Deep South: a Louisiana transplant (geaux tigers!) practicing law in Mississippi with an Alabama-based law firm. I also wanted to share my thoughts in light of the police-involved deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Elijah McClain, and so many others. Too many others to name and too many others to ignore.
I felt an even greater push to write this piece in reflecting on the passing of political and cultural giants like NBA star Kobe Bryant, Congressman John Lewis, civil rights leader C.T. Vivian, acclaimed actor Chad Boseman, and most recently, United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. From the controversial killings at the hands of police to the passing of American icons to the countless lives lost to COVID-19 to the untold damage inflicted by hurricanes pummeling the entirety of the gulf coast, 2020 has been marred by unrelenting sadness, economic hardship, civil unrest, unimaginable loss (of lives, property, and all sense of normalcy), and political hostility.
With the flood of think pieces being published in response to the current political climate and public outcry over the social justice issues that have plagued 2020 so far, it seemed like a no-brainer to lend my voice to the current conversations surrounding diversity and inclusion in the legal field. Yet and still, I found myself inundated with internal questions: Is this the right time for an article like this? Am I jumping on a political bandwagon? Will my voice be lost in the flood of diversity and inclusion pieces and press releases expressing support for minority colleagues we have seen over the last few months? I have pondered this piece, started, stopped, and deleted it, several times over the last few months bearing all of these questions in mind. It finally dawned on me, however, that the fact I had so many questions and so much hesitation about writing this piece was the very reason that I needed to write and share it.
As a young female associate, I have had the distinction of being the only African-American attorney in the law firms that I have worked for throughout my two years in private practice. I point this out not because I wear the distinction as a badge of honor, but to highlight the commonplace finding of either only one or very few minority attorneys in mid to large-size law firms in the Deep South. The lack of diversity in mid-size to large law firms in the Deep South as compared to other parts of the country is something that I am keenly aware of and it has shaped how I have approached my career in private practice thus far. My instinctive approach has largely been to lay low, put in the work, produce quality results, and let nothing deter me along the way.
To be clear, no one expressly told me that my approach is the best way to ensure a successful career in private practice. I have been fortunate to work with attorneys over the course of my two years in private practice and throughout my four-year career that have readily mentored me and availed themselves of practice pointers for success both in and out of the courtroom. Nevertheless, my approach throughout my academic and now professional career has been to lay low and let my work speak for itself. Somewhere along the way, I unconsciously decided that the best way to make female, African-American attorneys more commonplace in medium-large law firms was to be an exemplary associate, in the same way, that I had always strived to be a model student, careful to always color inside the lines. In the same vein, I unconsciously decided that the burden solely rested with me to promote diversity and inclusion in hopes that my own work would result in additional diverse attorneys being hired in medium and large law firms here in Jackson, Mississippi. I had adopted a mentality that my own work could somehow establish credibility for other minority attorneys.
I have since come to realize that the burden of effecting diversity and inclusion cannot and indeed, does not solely rest with me. However, there is an obligation incumbent upon attorneys of all backgrounds to actively promote a law firm environment where attorneys of diverse race, gender, sexual orientation, age, and background can thrive. Applying that obligation to myself means making more of an effort to make my voice heard and adjusting my general practice of laying low. However, how does one go about balancing the pursuit of diversity and inclusion efforts with “walking the line” as an up and coming professional, especially here in the Deep South where one might be more likely to be the sole diverse attorney in the firm?
While I ordinarily shy away from any discussion of social justice issues, at least in a professional context, for me, as of late, walking the line between professionalism and speaking out on social justice issues has meant recognizing that the two can in fact co-exist and leaning into the momentum created by social events to help reinvigorate diversity and inclusion initiatives within my own firm. It has meant getting more involved in local and national affinity organizations within the legal field to further diversity and inclusion initiatives outside of my firm. It has also meant utilizing the tools of social media platforms live VLOGs and LinkedIn to deliberately spark and further conversations about social justice issues to maintain their prominence at the forefront of society.
The events of 2020, tragic and politically charged as they may be, have without a doubt catapulted people into hard conversations about racial injustice, economic disparity, and healthcare inaccessibility. Even though those conversations may be uncomfortable and sometimes heated, we cannot ignore that right now in this moment and time, people are listening and paying attention. Though there is never a wrong time to commit to doing the work needed to sustain diversity and inclusion efforts, whether that commitment is spurred by public outcry or otherwise, we cannot ignore that right now is the time to educate and re-commit to active and intentional diversity and inclusion efforts that go beyond stagnant committees that may exist in name only.
I have no doubt that there will be someone reading this article who like me, thought her legal path would lead headfirst into the crusades of justice for her community at large. I am also certain that there are others who, also like me, find themselves practicing in areas of law that at times seem completely at odds with the goals set out in their personal statements written for law school admission and trying to reconcile feelings of guilt for enjoying the work they actually do. Rest assured, just as there is work to be done by those attorneys who are more directly involved with the community, there is equally important work to be done by all attorneys to meaningfully affect and sustain diversity and inclusion in the legal field, no matter the practice area and regardless of which side of the “v” you represent. So we must be reminded that in whatever we do, especially in our diversity and inclusion efforts, it is imperative that we find our voice, lean into it, and use it.
Shauncey works in the Jackson, MS office and focuses her practice on Appellate, Bankruptcy, Creditor’s Rights, Real Estate, Insurance Defense, and Civil Litigation.