Biglaw’s Attempt at Inclusion Goes Terribly Awry
October 4, 2022
A group of Biglaw associates from one of the nation’s largest Biglaw firms recently found themselves in hot water after scheduling an event to commemorate Black History Month. The group, composed mostly of white associates, had decided that its Black History Month event should be an African Safari Night, during which the team would dress in khaki hunting gear, carry spears, and attempt to hunt and kill as many wild animals as possible. The problem?
The Email Was Sent
I know this email might sound strange coming from me, but there has been some talk about the Biglaw firm not being inclusive during Black History Month.
It was said that the Biglaw firm doesn’t do anything in particular to celebrate Black History Month and the few black people that are associates here just get the regular ‘education about Black history’ memo. It made me feel really out of place because how it seemed like I was almost invisible.
The best way to learn is by example and so if you could be proactive and think of some things to do, like maybe commissioning a play or something, it would be much appreciated. And sorry if I sound unreasonable, but diversity is important.
The Email Went Public
Late last month, we learned of a shockingly tone-deaf email sent out by one of the most respected Biglaw firms in the country. The recipient? The entire firm. The sender? An ambitious associate tasked with drafting this year’s Black History Month messaging.
This email went viral within the hour and led to scathing criticism on all sides of the political spectrum—including from conservatives who staunchly defended this Biglaw firm when they were accused of engaging in racist hiring practices only one year ago.
But while her intent may have been to generate goodwill toward black lawyers, she succeeded only in serving up an arrogant and poorly executed attempt at inclusion that put our profession back on trial for being antithetical to diversity, as well as for our wildly out-of-touch thinking about social media.
Keller went too far in some employees’ opinions with their costumes, including white women wearing blackface.
Kathy Ruemmler, the former U.S. Deputy Attorney General, was not amused with the annual festivities. It is appalling that a company built on an honorable legacy of civil rights leadership now distributes a play scripted and produced by whites, she said.
As an African-American woman living and working for BigLaw I have been very proud of our commitment to diversity as well as our commitment to being inclusive. Ruemmler said in her statement issued to CNN Money last year.
The News Articles Appear
A recent Biglaw firm’s Black History Month efforts have received criticism because they included a photoshopped poster of Barack Obama captioned, Our Nation Unwittingly Elected a Self-Aware Female Child. After receiving immense backlash from various social media users,
the Biglaw firm has removed its campaign materials and issued an apology for what many are considering to be racially insensitive advertisements. We understand the risk of offending people in this delicate historical and political climate, said the firm, and we apologize if anyone felt uncomfortable or mistreated. The PR campaign was meant to signify America’s advancement as a society by urging citizens to question how far we’ve come from slavery.
Law Students Come Forward About Their Experiences
With Big Law firms already struggling to find diverse candidates, one might think this would be an opportunity for them to showcase that diversity. For example, Patton Boggs recently tweeted about their promotions: Black History Month isn’t just important. It’s vital.
According to Harvard Law Students who went undercover in BigLaw, Black History Month can be a difficult time for black employees of law firms. One student said she felt like an invader in the predominantly white office space and was not offered enough mentorship or support because she didn’t look like the other lawyers there.
Class Action Lawsuit
David Ritt, an Attorney for Daley & Daley LLP, sent out a company-wide email encouraging his firm to be more inclusive by recognizing Black History Month. However, he lost his job after some employees reacted with outrage over being forced to commemorate black history in their white space. The Chairman of the Board then decided to discontinue any plans for inclusivity.
Rest had been trying hard this year to help improve diversity and inclusion within the law profession. He is well known as an attorney who has offered mentorship opportunities and volunteered hours of his time pro bono.
Part of the problem with this big law firm’s attempt to include black employees is that it did so in a way that portrays them as if they are victims. By listing all of their woes and misfortunes, they come off as downtrodden when the reality is that these lawyers likely have different backgrounds.
This allows outsiders (i.e., judges and jurors) to become sympathetic without having to know more about the law firm or anything else in context. There is always a chance that these lawyers would have been reprimanded if they had spoken up and defended themselves.
However, an explicit move to change Black History Month by addressing an anti-discrimination lawsuit or employing more attorneys of color might be seen in a better light by its constituents.
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