Yes. Absolutely everyone should be concerned about diversity in their practice, even solo practitioners; even freelance virtual paralegals such as myself. Solo practices are some of the most diverse out there; women and minorities make up a significant portion of solo practices.
Diversity is about recognizing the unique qualities each individual has and what those characteristics brings to the table. It’s about embracing those qualities in people, empowering dignity and achievement. Diversity and inclusiveness lead to engagement, create connections and innovation, and develop longevity and success.
A solo practitioner encounters diversity everywhere in everything
You may think that it’s unnecessary, even impossible, to achieve in a solo practice, but you would be mistaken. A solo practitioner will encounter diversity in the courtroom — in judges, juries and opposing counsel. A solo practitioner will encounter diversity in their clients — in their ethnicity, gender, religion, economic status, age, and even citizenship. A solo practitioner will encounter diversity in any contract and vendor services they use. A solo practitioner will find diversity necessary in the face they present to the world — through social media and websites and in how they present themselves in their materials, organizations, and yes, even the legal documents they create.
Ultimately, a solo practitioner is more appealing to a client when that practitioner demonstrates through their actions that not only do they understand diversity, they embrace and reflect diversity and inclusion. Your clients need to see themselves reflected in your practice, they need to see that you understand and appreciate them. They need to see that you care about their problem and respect their life experience. No matter how normal their case may seem to you, for them it is unique and uniquely affected by their personal circumstances.
So how can you as a solo insure that you reflect diversity when, well, you’re a solo practice? I sat down with Ahmed Davis, the Diversity chair at Fish & Richardson, PC, a global leader in Intellectual Property law to talk about various ways to do just that.
Reflect diversity in your policies. State that your firm welcomes clients of all backgrounds. Demonstrate this with your case studies, referrals, and testimonials. Have a sexual harassment policy that not only does not tolerate it, but indicates steps if there’s a complaint to a reliable third party (say your Bar association). For your employees, including yourself, make sure family leave policies are generous and explicit and any breastfeeding facilities are comfortable and welcoming.
Your clients see everything you do.
This may seem unnecessary when you are a solo, but your clients will see it. They will see how you treat vendors and how you represent them. A breast feeding mother may need accommodation during her case — while meeting with you or in court for example. An estate lawyer will need to understand the unique complications of an LGBTQIAP+ client’s need to exclude a parent who won’t accept who they are.
Demand diversity in all facets of your case, including the language you use. A jury is supposed to represent the defendant/respondent’s peers — but did your Voir Dire inadvertently include bias against immigrants in your labor case or did opposing counsel dismiss all the immigrant jurors? Did you take into consideration the unique experiences a low income juror can bring to bear? Did your opening statement include an inadvertent joke about stay at home moms in your divorce case? Make sure your client sees their shared characteristics with the team you build for their case, in the language you use to describe it and the people to whom you present it.
It’s important to have a few people you can bounce the language you use in your briefs or in court. Consider the great “Niggardly” debacle of the DC Mayor’s office. David Howard, then Mayor Anthony Williams’ head of the Office of Public Advocate used the word “niggardly” to describe the former administration’s funding policies and triggered a national debate. While he used the word correctly, in a primarily black city that undergoes so much scrutiny and has had such a profound history in terms of race relations, his choice of words was in poor taste. Not only did he learn a valuable lesson in sensitivity, but the rest of us learned how the words we use can be perceived in ways we don’t think about.
Avoid sidestepping the issue. You must find a way to address the elephant in the room fairly and equitably every day. Do not have the discussion when emotions are high, but do so in your everyday conversations and behaviors. Keep up with ethics training. Get feedback, preferably in writing, from your clients after their cases are complete — and during. Not only will this feedback reflect success in your efforts, it will reflect areas which require improvement. Be open to those suggestions, no matter how difficult they are to hear.
Join a diversity bar association or section. This one may seem counter intuitive, especially if your characteristics are not those of the section, for example, not being South or East Asian and joining the National Asian Pacific Bar Association. But the truth is, if you are committed to the organization’s mission and demonstrate sincere participation, it means a lot. You chose to be there. Your membership and participation demonstrates commitment to diversity in a tangible and effective way. It is action, not lip service. The caveat of course is that if you have an agenda or you are not sincere, they will know that too.
Take the lessons of big law to heart. If you aren’t the best person to handle the case, don’t try to be because you want the case, partner or refer the matter to a lawyer you trust who is better suited to the matter. Have a group of attorneys you refer matters out to that reflects diversity. A Latinx client may speak English just fine, but would they understand the issues of their case and work with you better with a Spanish speaking lawyer? If your estate planning practice exists in an area with a large Jewish or Muslim population, do you work with someone who understands the nuances those faiths bring to their case? Make sure that when you meet with a potential client the first time, your “pitch” includes a diverse team and go prepared.
Above all work toward the steps beyond diversity. Focus on inclusion, empowerment and equality. Oh sure, you’re struggling to meet the basics of diversity and now I’m asking you to think beyond? Yes I am. Because diversity is the minimum basic need. In the legal profession, whether we are lawyers or paraprofessionals, we want justice for our clients. If we work with that ultimate intent in mind — that all of our clients have a result that gets them justice and an equitable playing field — we go beyond diversity.
Diversity breeds development.
Including diverse backgrounds throughout your practice promotes goodwill, fosters healthy relationships, and increases awareness of an unexplored world. Everyone has seen the graphic that represents the difference between equality and equity. Make your practice a place where your clients belong, where they get the justice they need. Diversity breeds business development. Clients who see this degree of awareness and commitment will refer other potential clients to you.
Alison Pacuska is the president of Pacuska Professional Services, a boutique consulting firm focused on top-tier paralegal and legal assistant services with a focus on intellectual property and solo practitioners. Talk with her about the your practice needs.