Old Business Cards, Old Dreams, and A New D&I Future

Like a lot of people, my husband and I have been using the lockdown to undertake “COVID-cleaning,” that sorting, rearranging, organizing, and general cleaning around the house that generally gets postponed in favor of more urgent/important/enjoyable/essential/interesting tasks and chores. You know, things like cleaning and reorganizing the pantry and refrigerator, finally scouring the pots and pans in a quest to regain their original color and shine, organizing the basement, . . . . COVID-cleaning is a good distraction from worries and concern about what’s going on in the world, in the legal profession, and in one’s own life. And, for those of us who have lived most of our adult lives feeling concerned about it, it’s a good way to stop thinking, talking, and generally stressing about the future of diversity and inclusion (“D&I”) in the legal profession. 

Among the many treasures we re-discovered while COVID-cleaning was a yellow cookie tin. Opening it, I found a several hundred old business cards that I’d collected from people, neatly rubber-banded in bundles. I suppose a more efficient person would simply have noted that they were clearly many years old and, as I hadn’t missed them or needed them, I should simply Marie Kondo them: toss them and move on.

But I didn’t. Or maybe I couldn’t. Whatever the reason, I carefully pulled off the now dried and dead rubber bands and began to look through all these cards. Most were well over ten years old, some a decade older than that. There were a lot of names that I didn’t recognize but based on how they were grouped, there were a number that called to mind specific bar association conferences and meetings, speaking engagements, panel presentations, and the like. Quite a few were from people who at the time held particular bar association leadership roles but many more were from now defunct law firms. Many were from people who I know for a fact no longer work at the organization represented on the card. And there were some from people we’ve lost over the years, whom I hadn’t thought about in years, but whom I found I was happy to recall our paths crossing, however briefly. Some of those cards included notations I’d made – something about the person, usually some sort of reminder about following up: their request that I send them an article or report or other information, or that I connect them to someone else – most of those people I never heard from again, not even an acknowledgement that they’d received the information I’d later sent or whether they, in turn, were able to connect with whomever I’d provide their introduction. A few of the cards, outdated or a reminder of someone no longer with us, I’ve kept, perhaps out of some misguided sense of nostalgia. But most, regardless whether they elicited an old and forgotten memory or a complete blank, I was ready to toss.

Looking at those old cards, I was struck by the fact that I’d encountered all these people at assorted D&I programs, meetings, and conferences, many before “inclusion” was even a “thing,” a buzzword or term of art. “Diversity” was sufficient in those days. Nameless, but for those old business cards, and faceless in my imperfect memory, they nevertheless were part of what we might now refer to as the second wave of the legal profession’s D&I history. At a time when we’d moved beyond thinking about diversity primarily in the context of civil rights, and were dreaming of social justice in the guise of professional opportunities, the names on those old business cards represented the unacknowledged troops in the effort to see our profession become more diverse and inclusive. By and large, the people whose old business cards were sitting forgotten in that old tin are not people whose names you’d recognize. They weren’t garnering awards and accolades for their diversity work or accomplishments. They aren’t the D&I icons of the legal profession. Yet, if the legal profession has made some D&I progress, it wouldn’t have happened without them.

These are the people who showed up. They’re the folks who got their employers to underwrite their travel to those myriad diversity meetings, conferences, and conventions, thereby sending the message that these things were important to and valued by the lawyers who cared about diversity. Or, if their employers didn’t financially support their attendance, they invested in themselves and in the dream of a more diverse legal profession by digging into their own pockets to attend.

These are the people who were interested in learning and thinking strategically about D&I issues even as they lived them. Before we acknowledged microaggressions and implicit biases and the need for sponsors AND mentors, before diversity professionals even existed, and before “inclusion” these were the lawyers who were in the D&I trenches. Diversity mattered to them. 

I think if you were to ask any of the people whose old business cards I found, they’d agree that diversity didn’t progress as rapidly or smoothly or thoroughly as they might have liked. The point, however, is that it did progress. 

If the third wave of the legal profession’s D&I journey – the recovery (to the extent there was one) after the economic downturn of 2008 – has come to an end, what might we expect during the fourth wave – D&I in a post-pandemic profession – to look like?

Much the same but different. As a profession, we’ll need to remain vigilant and make conscious and strategic decisions aimed at reinforcing and building upon our D&I progress to date. Diverse lawyers – those who are women, racial/ethnic minorities, openly LGBTQ+, or have disabilities, or belong to other underrepresented groups – will still need both mentors and sponsors; quality professional development training; work that will allow them to stretch and grow as lawyers in both sufficient quantity and quality; and ample opportunities to build relationships with the other lawyers and legal professionals with whom they work. In other words, the same things any lawyer needs to succeed. But unlike others, they will also need professional support and encouragement designed to address and counter unintentional exclusion, benign neglect, microaggressions and microinequities, biases directed at or about them, and all the other challenges that are unique to diverse individuals. Social distancing and working remotely coupled with the additional demands on time that many lawyers are facing as they morph into the roles of teachers, camp counselors, and even chief cooks and bottle washers, will make this even more challenging than it was before coronavirus became a part of everyone’s vocabulary. 

Nevertheless, I remain optimistic and those old business cards are one reason. They are a reminder that the effort to create a more diverse and inclusive legal profession is bigger that any individual or any practice setting. Less experienced diverse lawyers are likely going to encounter career challenges that might have been lessened pre-pandemic but those business cards are proof positive that as individuals, diverse lawyers are still going to persist and do what they must to survive and thrive. Law firms may scale back the amount of financial contributions they make to support diversity and inclusion efforts and organizations, but the genie is out of the bottle: they know that diversity does matter in their efforts to develop and retain business and to recruit and retain the best and brightest legal talent. Corporations may spend less in support of D&I but so long as they continue to send the message to their in-house counsel that  their diversity is valued and to their outside counsel that law firm diversity is of concern to them, their D&I efforts won’t completely disappear. Bar associations may allocate fewer resources to support their diversity committees, but the creativity, collaboration, and commitment of bar junkies makes it likely that these efforts will continue, albeit more modestly, slowly, or strategically. And the many individual lawyers who care about a more diverse and inclusive profession will continue their push, however and whenever they may. Their employers may change, their positions may rise or fall, and they may even leave us, but their spirit and dedication to improving this profession by making it more diverse and inclusive will continue. Our challenge will be to work harder, think more imaginatively, and act ever more innovatively. Future generations may do things differently, but they’ll do things. Many of those people whose old business cards I found did just that. They didn’t give up and go away. They were the quiet but persistent force that pushed the legal profession’s D&I efforts every step of the way. Old business cards may fade away, but the legal profession’s D&I efforts won’t. Consider yourself on notice.