The Walk Sign is On for All Crossings

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

By Sandra Yamate


If you stand at the intersection of State and Jackson in Chicago long enough, you’ll discover that in addition to the walk sign that allows one to cross State Street, and then switches to allow one to cross Jackson, occasionally, all the walk signs are on so that one may cross the intersection diagonally. “The walk sign is on for all crossings,” intones a computerized voice. We can learn from that.

Consider allyship. In the diversity and inclusion arena, allyship isn’t a new concept. The LGBTQ+ community lead the way on the need for allies years ago. In recent weeks it seems to be emerging as a hot diversity topic. I’m seeing more posts about it on LinkedIn, have been receiving more requests to speak on the topic, and increasingly I see it listed as a program topic at various diversity and inclusion programs and conferences. That’s good, because it’s an important topic and any diversity and inclusion momentum is unlikely to prove successful without allies.

By allies and allyship, we’re usually talking about those who are part of the dominant culture – straight, cis-gender people when we’re talking about LGBTQ+ allies – or men – frequently white, often straight – when we’re talking about gender or race – or those who manifest no visible disabilities when we’re discussing ability – and their support for the diverse group in question. We want – no, we NEED them to help those of us who are diverse. We hope they’ll be champions, that they’ll hire us for jobs, that they’ll retain us as outside counsel, that they’ll help us access the opportunities we need for professional advancement.

But generally, the emphasis seems to be on straight, white men. That’s not surprising; the most cursory examination of the demographics of the profession shows that when it comes to positions of power, influence, and stature within the profession, straight, white men are more likely to hold those positions than anyone else. Indeed, it’s one reason why, when diverse individuals achieve professional success, we make note of it. Diverse individuals who achieve the highest levels of professional success are frequently viewed as exceptions to the rule and applauded for that.

Nevertheless, I cannot help but wonder whether we’ve been too focused on straight, white men as allies. Make no mistake, such allies are vital. If, as a profession, we hope to succeed in our diversity and inclusion goals, everyone needs to be an ally. EVERYONE.

Too often, it seems that those of us who are diverse act as if, by virtue of that diversity, we get an allyship “pass.” While diverse individuals continue to be underrepresented in the upper echelons of the profession, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t achieving some levels of success. And, with even the most modest levels of success, we should not be so self-focused that we forget that all of us are in a position to be an ally to someone else.

“Duh!” you might say. Talk about restating the obvious. But think about it: for those of us who are diverse, how frequently do we exert ourselves to help or support some aspect of diversity that isn’t our own? How readily do we support a diversity and inclusion program that might not directly benefit our group? How often have we made an effort to get involved in some diversity event that addresses an aspect of diversity that isn’t our own? Too infrequently.

Years ago, a Cook County Circuit Court judge took the opportunity of Pearl Harbor Day to express his antipathy toward people of Japanese ancestry from the bench. When that judge was up for retention, the Asian American Bar rallied our community to oppose him, despite the unlikeliness that Cook County’s Asian American community could be successful in such an endeavor. But friends at the Cook County Bar Association and the predecessor bars to the Hispanic Lawyers Association, supported us. With their help, the judge was not retained. That was allyship.

So, while it is true that if the legal profession wants to be more diverse and inclusive we need more straight, white men as active allies, we can also choose to be better allies ourselves. Diverse lawyers in large firms can find ways to support the success of those in small firms and vice-verse. Asian American lawyers should be just as worried about the declining numbers of African American partners in large firms and the abysmal numbers of Latinas in the profession as members of those groups, who, in turn should all be concerned about the underrepresentation of Native Americans in the profession and the depressing conversion rates from associates to partners for Asians.

Real allyship is a lot like the crossing signs at State and Jackson. Just like cutting across an intersection diagonally, we need to approach allyship as crossings in ALL directions.