Imagine Me – The Power of Role Modeling

By Jacqueline Cranford

For years, the question of why women and people of color leave law firms at a rate much higher than white men has plagued law firm leaders and administrators. While many factors impact this attrition disparity, this article focuses on two key factors: 1) the importance of having role models, and 2) the importance of promoting different models of success. The eloquent words of Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and Nigerian novelist Chimananda Adichie illustrate these concepts, with application to law firms.

Recognizing the breadth of diversity, and acknowledging that entering a law firm can present challenges to a variety of people, I will discuss women of color to show the importance of role models and the impact of their absence. While the focus here is women of color, cultivating diverse role models and multiple models of success is beneficial to everyone.Diversity is broad and includes the straight white man from a small farming town, the gay white man from a major metropolitan area, the straight white woman who is the first person in her family to earn a college degree, the Asian American woman who attended a law school that is not well represented in her chosen firm, the Latino man who is entering law as a second career, etc.

A Lesson From Hollywood – The Lupita Nyong’o Story

This past March, when Hollywood recognized the talents of a young, African newcomer, Lupita Nyong’o, black women and girls all over the world rejoiced. Shortly thereafter, her ground-breaking appointment as the first black woman to serve as brand ambassador for Lancôme Paris, coupled with being named People magazine’s Most Beautiful Person, instilled tremendous pride in countless women. Ms. Nyong’o stepped into a space rarely occupied by women who look like her. She became an important example of how someone different than the norm can be successful, and became a role model to many. Her achievements enabled others to envision the possibilities of their own successes.

Recognizing the opportunity to encourage similarly situated women, Ms. Nyong’o openly discussed the impact of the lack of role models who looked like her.

I remember a time when I too felt unbeautiful. I put on the TV and only saw pale skin. I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin. And my one prayer to God … was that I would wake up lighter-skinned…. And every day I experienced the same disappointment of being just as dark as I had been the day before.

And when I was a teenager my self-hate grew worse…. And then Alek Wek came on the international scene. A celebrated model, she was dark as night, she was on all of the runways and in every magazine and everyone was talking about how beautiful she was…. I couldn’t believe that people were embracing a woman who looked so much like me as beautiful. My complexion had always been an obstacle to overcome …. Now, I had a spring in my step because I felt more seen, more appreciated …

“The Danger of a Single Story”

In her TED Talk entitled, “The Danger of a Single Story,” Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie, illustrates this point in a story about her early writings. As a child, Ms. Adichie wrote stories about characters with blond hair, blue eyes, and other traits she had not experienced as a child growing up in Nigeria. Yet, those were the only images she had seen in books, so those were the images she thought worthy of including in her own stories. “I did not know that people like me could exist in literature,” she said. Had she seen a diversity of images in literature, including images reflecting her life, she would have had other examples of characters already deemed worthy of inclusion in literature.

Lessons For Law Firms

Women of color in law firms face a similar lack of role models in the senior ranks. Those who are well represented in our law firms, on the other hand, have options of role models to emulate at every seniority level. It is, presumably, easier to imagine success when clear examples with which you identify exist. It can be very challenging to imagine success in an environment lacking examples similar to your own.

Imagine A Firm

Imagine two scenarios. First, imagine the world of a straight, white male, recent law school graduate, joining a large firm. He sees successful white male attorneys at every level of seniority and occupying key leadership roles. Partners invite him to join them while entertaining clients, many of whom are also white and male. Imagine the confidence boost he receives, seeing successful people like himself, and being included in activities and relationships that contribute to advancement.

Next, imagine the world of an African American woman, also a recent law school graduate joining that same law firm. She sees very few women of color at any level in the firm, and none occupy senior leadership roles. Imagine the challenges of envisioning women of color in senior leadership roles when none exist, and few have ever ascended the ranks.

Imagine both of these associates, driven to excel in the profession; imagine each of them assessing their prospects, considering the history and diversity make-up of their firm, as well as the demographics of the firm’s partnership and leadership. Imagine each of them charting their courses, looking for role models, evaluating the experiences of those who have gone before them.  For one, many models of success are evident – for the other, she finds only her own visions of the possibilities of success. She is faced with blazing a trail, and trying to determine her likelihood of success. Imagine the time, energy, and emotional toll this takes. This is, sadly, the experience of many women of color in law firms.

Now, imagine a law firm that recruits a diverse group of talented attorneys. When those attorneys arrive at the firm, they find a variety of attorneys at all levels of the firm, occupying key leadership positions, and demonstrating different models of success at the firm. Imagine the positive impact on those attorneys and their ability to see the possibilities of their own success at the firm.

Conclusion

Why are role models and multiple models of success important for cultivating an environment in which all attorneys believe they have an opportunity to succeed, and why is this good for business? When we hire attorneys and provide a diverse and inclusive environment that includes diverse examples of success, we inspire them to see the possibilities of their own success as productive members of the organization. We better position our firms to tap into the rich and broad array of ideas, creativity, and problem solving abilities that people with different experiences and backgrounds can bring to bear when they are invited to share their ideas, perspectives, and solutions.

 

About the Author

Jacqueline Cranford is the principal of Cranford Advisory Services LLC, and formerly directed the professional development, diversity and inclusion initiatives at several major law firms.

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