It’s Time To Use Our Communications Skills To Fight Racism, Foster Diversity

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Legal Marketing Association (LMA) – Mid-Atlantic Newsletter, October 5, 2020

Author’s note: This article is written from the perspective of a white, cisgendered legal marketing professional, and its call to action is directed at those with similarly situated identities. It is not meant to direct or put additional work on BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) individuals.

The deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and most recently, the shooting of Jacob Blake are focal points in a sad, outrageous and bleak year. The long-standing pernicious virus that is racism and white supremacy has been joined by COVID-19. Collectively we have much to overcome, and to grieve.

As Senator Kamala Harris noted, “There is no vaccine for racism.” The overdue racial assessment and reckoning unfolding across the country affects or must affect legal marketers as well. We need to take action at our firms, in our professional community, and in our lives. One way we can help is by using our skills as communicators.

As a white, cisgendered male, my worldview is very different from a person of color. Data on the demographics of law firm leadership show that the majority of law firms are headed by people with similar racial and gender identities, contributing to the potential for organizations – shaped by leadership viewpoint and often implicit bias – to see the events of this summer, which are part of a long continuum, as brief blips rather than serious inflection points.

Law firm marketing and communications plans need to start doing two core things: 1) proactively amplify the work of Black, Latinx, Indigenous and other people of color; and 2) look for opportunities to leverage promotional resources to champion BIPOC clients, as well as clients from other historically marginalized communities.

For example, in the D.C. market, the Washington Business Journal annually solicits nominations for its “Minority Business Leader Awards.” Every firm in the region should be submitting. If your firm’s response to this advice is, “We don’t have anyone who qualifies,” think about why that is and what can be done to foster diversity and inclusion. And look outside your walls. Every firm also should be looking to submit a client or clients. If the feedback is, “We don’t know a business leader who qualifies,” again think about why that is and what can be done to foster diversity and inclusion in your business development strategies.

Efforts to raise the profile of BIPOC individuals need to be broad, and not tokenizing – limited solely to opportunities labeled “minority” (an increasingly poor word choice) or “diverse.” Turning again to nominations, think about amplifying the work of BIPOC employees when it comes to “40 Under 40,” “On the Rise” and “Best Deals.” Seize the moment we are in and its positive momentum to say and mean, “We want to amplify BIPOC voices and the valuable work that Black, Indigenous, people of color bring to our firm.”

One of the blind-spots we as legal marketers need to consider is not just why we aren’t seeing more total BIPOC representation at firms, but why within firms we often fail to see BIPOC attorneys as the focus of marketing and communications attention and resources. Law firm leaders and marketers need to be honest about the impact of systemic racism and how it makes career visibility and advancement more challenging for BIPOC individuals. Only by confronting this reality, and mapping out and taking actionable steps, can we start to make a course correction and be part of much needed broader change.

The work being championed falls heavily on people like me – white people. It may be unsettling to realize that we haven’t been considering race and identity issues as being urgently in need of our attention. But, BIPOC discrimination is widespread and utterly pernicious. It blocks, or makes needlessly more challenging, pathways to success and leadership, the “inclusion” component firms aim to achieve.

This year, and this moment, are a reckoning and part of a trend toward greater accountability, honesty, and reform. The democratization of information has been taking a sledgehammer to unjust, longstanding power structures. We’ve seen this with the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. Organizations need to be comfortable with transparency because talk isn’t sufficient and the truth will come out, much quicker than ever before. If marketing and communications actions, not just plans, are not inclusive, talent will leave or avoid a firm – and PR nightmares will loom. You can’t spin inaction.

In the spirit of transparency, two actions are suggested for legal marketers and communicators: 1) Urge firm leadership to be honest and open about failings. It’s OK to say, “We haven’t gotten to where we need to be in terms of BIPOC representation and inclusion.” 2) Work to root out our biases in marketing departments (implicit and explicit) and take action to amplify BIPOC voices in marketing and communications efforts.

Looking in the mirror is hard and thinking about confronting racism can be deeply uncomfortable. However, recent events have shown again that the alternative – doing nothing or merely voicing passing outrage – is unacceptable, harmful and perpetuates and enables the problem. Let’s use our skill as communicators to take action and champion the work of BIPOC individuals.

Originally published in the Legal Marketing Association (LMA) – Mid-Atlantic Newsletter, 10/5/2020.

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