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President: Walking the talk

Cite as: October 2012 86 (10) LIJ, p.04.

By Michael Holcroft, LIV President

What is your firm doing to promote diversity?

Our profession supports equality before the law. It is little surprise then that we should aspire to having a diverse profession that reflects the diversity of our Australian society.

The LIV and the profession at large have long recognised that we have much work to do before we can claim an acceptable level of diversity. We are continuing to lose an alarming proportion of our talented young female lawyers, and we are seeing very few Indigenous Australians studying or taking up the law as a profession. We are still hearing of discrimination and preventable hurdles remaining against lawyers with disabilities, and limited opportunities for many of those who come to the law later in life.

To successfully promote diversity we need to consider how we, as leaders of our profession and the community, can best address our diversity shortcomings.

Recently, LIV president-elect Reynah Tang and I attended the American Bar Association (ABA) meeting in Chicago. The ABA has strong diversity programs and ambitions. It is particularly focused on women, African Americans and Hispanics.

Interestingly, neither of the ABA conferences that I have attended included any discussion of Indigenous (American or Canadian Indian) issues or recognition. The LIV, NSW Law Society and Law Council of Australia (LCA) seem to be well advanced on the ABA in that area.

The LIV has implemented a number of diversity-related initiatives in recent years, including:

  • launching a Reconciliation Action Plan in September this year;
  • launching a Disability Action Plan in November 2011;
  • the Equal Opportunity Briefing Policy for women and an Indigenous barristers briefing policy. The LIV is implementing a strategy to increase recruitment and retention of law graduates and lawyers experiencing disability in the legal sector.
  • Eight of the 18 LIV councillors are women, two of the five executive are women. Three of the last seven presidents were women, and Reynah will next year become the first president of Asian descent.

    The LIV provides financial and other support to organisations such as Tarwirri and Victorian Women Lawyers.

    We can still learn however from the ABA and the American academic and professional studies how to address the issue of diversity.

    What is clear is that diversity is adversely affected by discrimination. Any promotion of diversity will ultimately require a pipeline from home, early learning, primary and secondary schools, university and into the profession.

    Still, as leaders we need to affect what we can and lobby for changes that are beyond our immediate control.

    The ABA diversity programs emphasised the harm done by stereotypes and labels. Success rarely occurs by chance.

    To summarise: most of us would accept that if you tell children (or young people) that they are going to fail, then they probably will.

    US studies by CM Steele and J Aronson in 1995 (“Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans” http://tinyurl.com/cf57rad) and S Spencer, CM Steele and D Quinn in 1999 (“Stereotype threat and women’s math performance” http://tinyurl.com/chkqgvv) confirmed that you can also adversely affect university students by “sowing the seeds of doubt”.

    In one case study a group of female students were told that women traditionally fared worse in the examination they were about to sit. As compared to their male counterparts they fared much worse in the examination. When a different but similar group of female students were told that they were just “testing an examination under development” they performed equal to their male counterparts.

    Similar results were obtained for minority groups.

    Interestingly, positive information and belief were shown to be able to have a positive effect at the start of courses of study.

    Unfortunately these studies have also identified a “stereotype threat”. This is an underlying fear of discrimination that lurks beneath the surface and may not be recognised. It might not be expressed, it might not be conscious. For example, excluding female team members from an activity or invite, or giving a junior “minority” colleague less challenging work might cause the female or minority colleague to feel that they are being discriminated against because of their gender or minority.

    To promote diversity, we should:

  • acknowledge the existence of stereotype threats;
  • normalise behaviour, for example, “all junior lawyers receive some of this work, you are no different, next time it will be someone else”; and
  • provide affirmation and positive information.
  • Retaining staff is good business, attrition is expensive.

    People do not progress to be associates or partners by chance. It takes inclusion, investment and intercedence. This is true of all people, but particularly important when seeking to promote people of diverse backgrounds who are under-represented in our profession or, in the case of women, at the senior end of our profession.

    The next question is what are you or your firm doing to promote diversity? I would like to hear what initiatives LIV member firms have in place. Comments can be forwarded to LIJ managing editor Mick Paskos, ph 96079319 or email mpaskos@liv.asn.au. We would like to profile some of these initiatives in future issues of the LIJ.

    Let us stay conscious of how our words and actions may be perceived by others and lift our efforts to make our profession more inclusive and diverse.

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