To build an inclusive legal profession, we must deconstruct systemic racial bias

Lawyers want to believe that the legal profession is a meritocracy, that working hard and being smart will prevail in the pursuit of justice. But it has been my experience in more than 25 years of practicing law as a federal prosecutor and corporate lawyer, and now as a diversity consultant, that this belief is divorced from reality — a reality the world witnessed on the streets of Minneapolis. Though the legal community puts great stock in good intentions, the murder of George Floyd and countless other black people at the hands of law enforcement officers show that good intentions and idealized faith in the law simply are not good enough.

Excellence is in the eye of the beholder, but many of us with black and brown skin are never given the chance to prove our merits and are too often sidelined in the professional legal community, leading to the same voices and the same thinking gathered around the same tables. That represents a missed opportunity to enact a more just system rather than hew to the systemic bias that continues to produce the same tragic outcomes on our streets and in our neighborhoods.

The ingrained racial bias of the typical American court room has been well noted. Much less understood — with damages measured in different, unseen ways — are the biases within the legal profession itself. African American lawyers are held more rigidly to so-called “objective criteria” for clerkships, cases and promotions and sidelined at the big firms that most often produce those who ultimately craft and lead the justice system or make the laws upon which the justice system is based. And then, even when we are afforded opportunities, we are often not mentored and not sponsored for purposes of advancement. That’s just inside the office; outside of it, very often we are stopped by police for simply walking in our neighborhoods, to work or through a park. So, not only is gaining a foothold in the legal community a challenge, simply getting to work can be an exercise in peril.

But the 8 minutes and 46 seconds that it took for a police officer to murder George Floyd has finally opened the eyes, I hope, of white Americans. The status quo has been held for far too long; this latest injustice must be the end of the old and the start of the new. Within the legal community, we must acknowledge the foundational and pervasive biases upon which our profession has been built. We must deconstruct and begin the process of rebuilding on a more equitable foundation.

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Why? The “meritocracy” of our system has failed us. According to the American Bar Association, African Americans are only 5 percent of the legal profession even though African Americans are 13 percent of the population. With only 16.5 percent lawyers of color, the legal profession is one of the least diverse professions in the United States. To create the fair and equitable justice system we all seek, we need to be certain that the individuals constructing that new system are diverse and representative of the talent in our diverse population. If not, we will reconstruct the new system with the same racial biases of the old.

In my home state of New York, I am pleased to see some of this work start to take place. New York State’s new police reform bill is the tip of the iceberg but crucial in systematically deconstructing the bias within our legal system as it relates to the police. New York’s bill requires community input in addition to the skills of lawyers to re-imagine and redesign the new law enforcement system. All voices must be heard. Diverse people need to gather at the table to rewrite the laws that have failed us. We need to be willing to examine the mistakes of the past to ensure we do not make them again. I am heartened to see diverse protesters on the streets pushing for change. No one can be passive now. A true meritocracy will exist only when all voices are included in the process.

Ms. Jones is a lawyer by training and a diversity consultant who specializes in providing diversity/inclusion consulting and training to individuals, law firms, corporations, not-for-profits, educational institutions, and other types of organizations. She is the founder and CEO of Jones Diversity. Her firm’s broad range of services enhance an organization’s competitive edge by enabling the organization to fully utilize, retain, and promote diverse individuals into leadership roles and create an inclusive organizational culture. Ms. Jones has practiced law and been a community leader over a 25-year career, including positions as a federal prosecutor, with major law firms, and with Fortune 500 Corporations. 

From 1985-1989, Ms. Jones served as an Assistant United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, based in Chicago, where she conducted federal grand jury investigations and trials in high profile white-collar criminal cases. In private law practice, she was a partner at Bird, Marella, Boxer, Wolpert & Matz in Los Angeles and was Of Counsel at Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe in Los Angeles. She has taught Trial Advocacy, both as an Adjunct Professor at Northwestern Law School and at the National Institute for Trial Advocacy. In the corporate sector, Ms. Jones managed litigation matters worldwide for Abbott Laboratories, advised senior leadership in matters of crisis management, and fashioned creative solutions to highly complex business issues. After leaving Abbott Laboratories, Ms. Jones acted as Senior Counsel at SBC Communications (now AT&T).

Ms. Jones served as Counsel of Record in the amicus curiae briefs of two cases filed in the United States Supreme Court by the Black Women Lawyers Association of Chicago. She is past President and co-founder of the Black Women Lawyers Association of Chicago (1986). She has served as a consultant to the ABA General Counsel Steering Committee to the Minority Counsel Program. Ms. Jones is the past Chair of the Chicago Bar Association Committee on Racial & Ethnic Diversity and was instrumental in the 2006 adoption of the Chicago Bar Association’s Diversity Initiative and Commitments on Racial & Ethnic Diversity. She is the past President of the Harvard Law School Alumni Association and former member of the Board of Directors of Women Employed. Ms. Jones is currently an elected Director of the Harvard Alumni Association and serves on the Board of Directors for the National Association of Women Lawyers and the Federal Defender Program of Illinois. She has also conducted racial equity programming at the Aspen Institute in Aspen, Colorado.

Ms. Jones is particularly passionate about diversity and inclusion in education at all levels. She is co-founder of the Association of Black Radcliffe Women. Ms. Jones is a former board member of Just the Beginning Foundation, a pipeline organization focused on inspiring middle and high school students of color and increasing diversity in the legal profession. More recently, Ms. Jones created the Burgard High School Advanced Manufacturing Program for NY Empire State Development in Buffalo, NY, a collaboration with Alfred State College to provide college credits to Burgard High School students.

Ms. Jones is a co-author of a guide published by the American Bar Association in May 2004 entitled, “Walking the Talk: Creating a Law Firm Culture Where Women Succeed,” which deals with the retention and promotion of women in law firms. She is a contributing author of The Diversity Agenda: Lessons and Guidance from the Legal Profession (published in April 2018), writing on the topic of “Structural Equity: Key Components for a Successful Inclusion Initiative.” Ms. Jones is also the author of Mastering the Game: Strategies for Career Success (published in May 2018), which provides over 100 strategies to help women and other diverse professionals successfully navigate the unwritten rules in many workplace cultures.