The Scale of Weirdness

Photo by Li Lin on Unsplash

by Sandra Yamate

Lament of an Asian American Law Firm Associate

When I joined the firm as a new lawyer, you said nothing to me.
When I out-billed all other associates in the firm, you said nothing to me.
When clients complimented my work, you said nothing to me.
When I started to bring the firm small matters that I could handle, you said nothing to me.
When I got COVID-19, you said nothing to me.
When I recovered from COVID-19, you said nothing to me.

Today, when the media is full of reports about anti-Asian violence,
Today, when clients are asking about our firm’s commitment to #StopAsianHate,
Today, when clients, other law firms, headhunters, and the like are inquiring about whether I’d be open to making a move,

NOW, you reach out.
NOW, you want to know if I am doing all right.
NOW, you want to schedule time for me to tell you about how I am feeling.
NO. On the Scale of Weirdness, that feels way too weird.

      --Anonymous Asian American Law Firm Associate

On March 16, 2021, outside Atlanta, a gunman shot eight people in three different spas. Six of those eight people were Asian American women. The spas where the shootings took place were businesses owned by or presumed to employ a number of Asian Americans. The Asian American community felt under attack. Again. This was just the latest incident in a long history of anti-Asian sentiment, pervasive throughout American history but near invisible in most American history classes. News media began to devote greater attention to the surge in anti-Asian violence that had erupted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Taking a lesson learned from our Black sisters and brothers during the #BlackLivesMatter protests and demonstrations of the previous summer, large employers, including law firms, began issuing statements of support – or, at least trying to do so.

I say “trying” because so many of them had no idea what to say or even where to begin. A number of diversity professionals confided that they felt ill-equipped to advise their organizations about what to say about anti-Asian hatred and so they said nothing. And too many employers seemed to feel there was little recourse but to turn to their Asian American employees and affinity networks, asking them to take the lead in developing the organizational response.

I found myself inundated with calls and emails from law firms, bar associations, and a few not-for-profits about what to say, who should say it, and when, where and how to say it. I didn’t mind; it’s a facet of the work we do. But what was disturbing were the numbers of calls and emails received from very junior law firm associates who just happen to be Asian American. Too many of them were worried and distressed because their firms were asking them to draft an appropriate statement for the firm. Most felt compelled to point out that their race alone did not give them the necessary expertise to do this. Quite a few, expressing frustration, observed that they were not diversity professionals and had never aspired to become one. And, as one noted wistfully, when it comes to racial issues, “It’s hard to get it right, but easy to get it wrong.” And we all know what happens to associates of color when they make a mistake. 

It hasn’t been much easier for the Asian American affinity networks. On top of all the disruptions, uncertainties, and distress that everyone has been experiencing during the pandemic, many of their members are experiencing the added stresses and strains of being part of a community that has felt under siege during the pandemic, one to which little attention and fewer resources have been directed. As a caller from one such network noted, “At best we could probably point out tone deafness and ignorance, but draft something from scratch? When did that get added to our job descriptions?”

None of this is intended as a condemnation of good intentions. Like much of life during a pandemic, this is uncharted territory for many. But we need to understand the lessons that this particular point in time should be teaching us:

  • Diversity, equity, and inclusion (“DEI”) is far more complex and nuanced than the legal profession has tended to realize. In order to be fully conversant and prepared for DEI challenges, we need to take steps to educate ourselves about the marginalized within the marginalized, the diversity within diversity. 
  • Not all diverse lawyers or diversity professionals are DEI experts. Nor should they be expected to be. Diverse lawyers should be viewed first and foremost as lawyers who are subject matter experts in their practice areas. Their diversity may bring new or different perspectives, experiences, and insights. If they also have knowledge and expertise about one or more of the facets of diversity they embody, and if they care to share that, that’s simply an added dimension to the value they bring. The same could be said for diversity professionals. Some, indeed, are DEI experts. But the term “diversity professional” encompasses a wide range of job duties and responsibilities. A diversity professional whose job duties lie primarily in collecting and reporting data in response to surveys and RFPs, may not be a DEI subject matter expert. 
  • Affinity groups and networks are a resource but not a substitute for DEI professionals who are DEI experts. It’s fine to consult affinity groups and community members but do not outsource the actual DEI work to them. They can help others to avoid missteps or inadvertent offense rooted in tone-deafness, ignorance, or other lack of cultural competence. Include them in discussions. But it is never appropriate to trot out affinity group members as if they were show ponies. In the long run that not only doesn’t help anyone, it can cause unnecessary hurt and pain that can lead to a host of other unintended consequences. 
  • There is no DEI “playbook.” Different groups and different situations call for different actions, reactions, and responses. Asian Americans may not want to deal with the Atlanta shootings and the sudden acknowledgement of the surge in anti-Asian violence in the same or similar ways as their Black sisters and brothers approach issues related to #BlackLivesMatter and other instances where normal and innocent behavior result in extreme and dire consequences for Black people. And other diverse groups may feel and need yet other approaches and reactions from their employers should they be faced with these kinds of emotional and psychological distress. Each group processes things differently. Give them space. Give them support. And give them the understanding to accept that it’s about them, and what they need and want, when they need and want it. It’s not about the rest of us or what we need or want to say, or do, for or to, them. 

Our collective DEI experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic should serve as a wake-up call. Racial disparities and inequities have been a persistent theme throughout. As members of the legal profession, we need to understand that we cannot simply delegate the responsibility for DEI to others, that we also bear individual responsibility. It speaks directly to our moral compass and ethical obligations. And how we choose to meet that responsibility speaks to who we are as a profession and as individuals. Therefore, as lawyers and professionals, we need to better prepare ourselves to meet and address those challenges. Otherwise, it’s just too weird.