Lip Service to Diversity

by ursavoice

Jacob Barak
J.D. Candidate 2013, UCI Law

Professionalism and diversity inevitably clash. The legal profession commits to diversity like the NFL commits to safety. The NFL’s commissioner says the league prioritizes safety, but the very rules of the game require violence. Football fans expect and demand violence; nobody watches touch football. The NFL wants to appear concerned about safety despite continuing to promote violence. Similarly, leaders in the legal profession, from law schools to law firms and government organizations, claim to value diversity while insisting on professionalism. The profession seeks to encourage the aspirations of members of minority groups, but it shuns those who choose to be different. After all, one of the key meanings of professionalism is acting like other professionals.

In less than a year of law school, this bias has become easily visible. A telling example of this bias occurred early in the fall semester, when first years were still learning each other’s names. A professor explained that attendance is mandatory but that one student had a good reason for being absent. The professor used the student’s name and then described the student’s atypical fashion sense and personal style. Though the comment was intended only as description for those who did not yet know the student’s name, it carried a subtext of prejudice: this person is different—not one of us. Another example of this issue is the Professional Protocol, Decorum, and Dress event, which exists solely to promote conformity to existing norms. The event will surely help students in their path to becoming lawyers, but why should the shallow concerns of dress and decorum matter?

Maybe submission to typical notions of professionalism is wise. Maybe the profession should only encourage those differences people do not choose. As the argument goes, people who choose to become lawyers should also choose to conform to standards set by other lawyers. Just as NFL fans actually want violence, the average client may prefer a typical lawyer who dresses in a suit and tie and listens to NPR instead of a diverse or different lawyer.

However, if these views are normative, claims of encouraging diversity are hypocrisy. Discrimination against people who choose to be different carries over to those who do not. People cannot stop being from a different background, but they can stop acting like it. Thus, the usual sense of professionalism implies that attorneys can be from different racial or socioeconomic backgrounds so long as they act like upper-class white males while they work—what scholars call covering. Leave your differences at home, and we will try to forgive you if some of them cannot be washed off your skin. Professionalism turns innate differences such as race, gender, and sexuality into obstacles to overcome instead of differences to celebrate. Regardless of what leaders of the legal profession say, they generally believe that being different is a bad thing. Until we accept all differences in people, including the ones they choose, we cannot fully accept any differences in people.