The Importance of Diversity and Inclusion for Attorney Wellness

What does diversity and inclusion have to do with attorney wellness? Diversity is more than race, ethnicity, gender, age, class, sexual identity and sexual orientation. Diversity is about difference, and how that difference shapes, enlightens and enriches our life experiences. Difference is not bad or wrong; it is a fact. Your unique set of differences is part of your identity, and helps shape who you are and how you perceive the world.

With this definition of diversity, everyone can be viewed as diverse because everyone is different. No two individuals are exactly alike. We each “broke the mold” when we were born. This is not how diversity is generally viewed. Instead, there is first a normative reference. This reference becomes the standard by which the “ideal” is identified. Implicit in the normative reference is that any characteristic that does not align with the normative is considered divergent and “other than.” The more the divergent characteristic deviates from the normative reference, the more the diversity is perceived as not the ideal.

This view of diversity, in which there is a common point from which all else diverges, is fraught with bias. With the acknowledgment of difference comes the ascribing of judgment: other than the normative and thus, not the ideal. So prevalent is the ascription of judgment that some in the normative group would rather dismiss the difference so as not to ascribe the judgment that comes with that acknowledgment. For example, many persons of color have been told, “I don’t see color. I treat everyone the same.” Those who say this may have meant well, but what they are implicitly saying is that if they acknowledge the color of the individual to whom they are speaking, they would have to also ascribe certain biases to that acknowledgment, and they would rather not be perceived as doing so.

The view that every person is diverse, having a unique set of differences, removes much of the judgmental bias that comes with acknowledging difference. Without the normative reference, no one standard is used to compare or evaluate everyone else. Focus can then be placed on finding the synergies that come with diversity, such that positive outcomes for the firm and the affected individuals are realized. This is important because people are not monolithic. They are fluid, with thoughts and emotions that can change or remain rigid as it suits them.

The reality is that white males are considered the normative reference, and the system and culture that have been developed support the characteristics and qualities associated with this reference as the standard by which everyone else is considered diverse. Often diversity is viewed as a negative in the workplace because it may be perceived as a threat to the group norm, the social order and the political construct. Diversity may be perceived as upsetting the status quo of appropriated perks and benefits for those who are part of the established order.

It is important that everyone take responsibility for attorney wellness and professional well-being. Viewed broadly, diversity with inclusion provides the vision of everyone contributing to the whole in a manner that adds value to the professional environment, allowing everyone to thrive. This includes white males. White males as the universal reference point however, is not the ideal. The ideal changes with the issue and corresponding solution.

People want to be valued and appreciated for what they do and for who they are.  They want opportunities to shine and prove their mettle—to themselves and to others. The inclusion of individuals with diverse characteristics permits this and aids attorney well-being. Individuals are empowered to identify their own as well as others unique set of differences from the vantage of inclusion and not exception. Inclusion becomes an organizational collaboration of intentional thought in identifying individual strengths, and an active engagement in determining how those strengths can enrich the firm, enhance professional development, and provide an environment conducive for professional wellness.

The dynamic of diversity and inclusion efforts is about developing among a firm’s stakeholders a shared understanding with collaborative effort and reciprocal trust in the direction and goals of the firm. The upshot is on how each stakeholder is able to meaningfully contribute to the direction and execution of those goals. Attorney wellness is influenced by the ease in which the specific needs of a person are addressed in the professional workplace.

The Value of Difference

Attorney wellness begins with you. Your personal and professional development starts with your knowledge of self. You should be the expert when it comes to knowing what is personally best for you. This knowledge would be deficient without an understanding of your unique set of differences and what you need to present your best professional self. Knowing who you are at the core, along with your strengths and weaknesses, enables you to start an informed conversation with those in the workplace about your professional development and its alignment with the advancement of firm goals and objectives. Your acknowledgment and appreciation of your diversity increases your ability to discern, acknowledge and appreciate the diversity of others. This inclusion seeks to draw out the best of each person for the betterment of the whole. If “two heads are better than one,” then it must be because the two heads are not the same. This is an acknowledgment that difference adds value and perspective in a manner that sameness and similarity do not.

Comprehending your unique value potential to your firm is the first step in understanding what you need for your professional development. It is important that you take the second step of promoting yourself, especially to decision makers who can provide you with opportunities to demonstrate your value to the firm. This promotion of yourself is best presented from a “this is how I can help you” approach rather than from a “please let me in” approach. People respond more readily to those who want to give more than to those who want to get.

The Value of Staying True to Your Self-Identity

“Perception is reality,” the old saying goes. While reality is a fact, one person’s perception of a fact may differ from another’s. When it comes to matters of diversity and inclusion, perceptions matter. Unfortunately diversity is often seen as a differentiator for the purpose of exclusion. It is a difference from the normative reference, and is frequently considered replete with negative bias regarding the divergence. These perceptions, expressed or not, are difficult for the diverse individual to counter. The perceptions are viewed as reality—existent facts and unassailable.

As a consequence, those who differ from the normative reference often pattern certain behaviors and aspects about themselves to that of the dominant group. This curtailing of the true self can result in depression or fearfulness. It can demotivate, hindering initiative, creativity and innovation because the focus is on amenability. The diverse individual does not want to be treated akin to the single blade of grass mowed down because it was sticking up higher than the rest. Similarity and sameness become the desired outcomes. An environment supportive of the status quo is continued rather than an environment seeking to draw out and develop the best talents of each individual.

The Importance of Fit

Every firm has a culture—a landscape inclusive of policies, procedures and protocols. What do you know about your firm’s culture? What are the assumptions underlying it? Do you have a sense of the expressed as well as unspoken collective thinking, decision making and motivational drivers by which the firm operates?

How well do you fit within this culture? If you do not know the culture, you cannot be intentional in influencing it. Your ability to accomplish purposed work, where your contributions result in tangible and meaningful outcomes to you and the firm, and your ability to develop your potential, are impacted by the culture of the firm. Culture drives performance. It can motivate as well as demotivate. The more you understand your firm’s culture the more confidence you will have in your ability to navigate the landscape to insure your unique gifts and talent are recognized and rewarded.

In summary, the perception of value in diversity and inclusion is an individual and collective responsibility. The acknowledgment of diversity, i.e., each person’s unique set of differences, from the vantage of inclusion rather than exception, empowers everyone in the professional environment to focus on how to harness and leverage those differences in creating synergies that benefit both the individual and the firm.  Everyone is responsible for inclusion. It cannot be left to those in the dominant group to create this environment.

Finding ways to be inclusive with your unique set of differences can be empowering. It acknowledges that you have some measure of control in your ability to meaningfully participate in matters that impact your personal and professional well-being. The level of control you possess over your professional destiny is positively correlated to your wellbeing.

About the Author


Joan R. M. Bullock is the dean and president of Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, California. Joan is the 2012-13 chair of the American Bar Association’s Law Practice Division and is the author of How to Achieve Success After the Bar: A Step-by-Step Action Plan published by the ABA Law Practice Division.


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