Celebrating Our Hispanic-Latino Heritage: Perspectives on Using Our Legal Skills to Promote, Protect, Defend, and Enhance Community Culture and Values in Difficult Times

By Hector A. Chichoni

Many of us, Latino members of the legal profession, just like anyone else, have different reasons as to why we decided to go to law school. However, for us the decision to become lawyers has always included a deep desire of being involved in work that helped improve our community and our people. For some, this desire has led them to work in the more “traditional” ways by pursuing and advocating for social justice, or in public defense, or in community advocacy to promote, protect, defend, and enhance our community.

However, Latino lawyers today should also consider that it is possible to use a law degree to promote, protect, defend, and enhance our Latino community by being involved in alternative ways other than the traditional ones. Consider the following:

A) A recent study conducted in 2019 by the Peterson Institute of International Economics, which found that:

“…Latinos are twice as likely to start a new business as the rest of the US population and between 2019 and 2048, Hispanics will account for 85% of new job holders in the US workforce. These findings and others support the notion that the Hispanic population plays a disproportionately large role in US economic growth, through expanding the economy by creating new businesses and jobs for all Americans, driving new demand for US companies’ goods and services and replenishing an aging workforce with young, well-educated and entrepreneurial workers.”


B) Karyn Twaronite, Global Vice Chair, Diversity & Inclusiveness at EY, wrote an article entitled: “How The Latinx Community Drives US Economic Growth” in which she provides five corporate imperatives that businesses should consider “taking…actions to leverage the economic growth potential of the Latino community.”

As the Latino community expands and growths, and US corporations and businesses follow imperatives that leverage the economic growth potential of the community, which will continue for the next 10 to 20 years, there will be incredible opportunities for Latino lawyers to promote, protect, defend, and enhance our community by participating in alternative paths, other than the traditional ways.

This blog post was created in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month. 

Celebrating our Hispanic-Latino Heritage: Perspectives on Using our Legal Skills to Promote, Protect, Defend, and Enhance Community Culture and Values in Difficult Times

By Miguel A. Quintana

With its vast territory and with millions of people immigrating over the past centuries, the United States is a culturally diverse country. One of the largest groups that has immigrated to the United States is that of the Hispanic-Latino group, which refers to those coming from Latin American countries.

In recent times, the United States has witnessed an increment of Hispanic-Latino immigrants. Consequently, the Hispanic-Latino culture has continued to grow in this country, and it has become one of the largest groups across its territory.

As a result of the expansion of the Hispanic-Latino culture within the United States, the number of Hispanic-Latino lawyers has naturally also increased.

As lawyers, we find ourselves in a position of privilege. Along with this position of privilege however, comes a great responsibility and a sense of duty to the community. It is important for lawyers to get involved in the community and use our abilities and knowledge to help those in need.

Hispanic-Latino lawyers are no exception. Importantly, Hispanic-Latino lawyers should not only seek to assist the broader community, but we should, additionally, get involved with the ever-growing Hispanic-Latino community.  As Hispanic-Latino lawyers, we have an inherent duty to assist our community with our experience and legal resources, even more so now during these difficult and challenging times.

The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded all of us of the importance of working together as a community, as well as to look out for one another. As a result, we should embrace this difficult situation as an opportunity to reach out to our Hispanic-Latino community and offer our assistance.

In order to do so, Hispanic-Latino lawyers may wish to get involved in different organizations that intend to assist the Hispanic-Latino community. Importantly, these organizations may serve as a networking platform among Hispanic-Latino lawyers. Additionally, these organizations may provide for a platform to address social and economic issues within the community.

Our heritage provides us with a unique opportunity to reach out to the Hispanic-Latino community. Our customs and our ability to communicate in our native language can be attractive and of help for our Hispanic-Latino community.

Additionally, our diversity within the Hispanic-Latino community is something to be proud of, and something that we, as Hispanic-Latino lawyers, should embrace and promote. Our roots are an integral part of who we are today, thus, we must not forget them, but rather use them as a platform to approach our community and help it develop.

Furthermore, as the Hispanic-Latino community continues to grow, Hispanic-Latino lawyers will become more important. Indeed, Hispanic-Latino lawyers provide a platform for a direct interaction with such community, and a good opportunity to assist it with our resources and knowledge.

This blog post is one of several created in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month. 

Harvey Milk’s Ideas about the Power of Coming Out Still Hold True Today

By Edward Cramp

Every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends if indeed they are your friends. You must tell the people you work with. You must tell the people in the stores you shop in. Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and all. And once you do, you will feel so much better.
Harvey Milk, 1978, available here.

Harvey Milk spoke these words in 1978, in a speech celebrating the defeat of Proposition 6 in California. Prop. 6 would have prohibited LGBT people from teaching in public schools. Ultimately, a wide coalition of leaders— from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan— joined Harvey Milk in condemning the measure. It went down to overwhelming defeat. Today, it is a credit to Harvey Milk and countless others that it is unthinkable that such a proposal could make it to the ballot.

Harvey Milk’s idea was brilliantly simple and revolutionary. He knew that queer people were everywhere. He realized that everyone in America knew someone who was lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, but that the powerful grip of shame (not to mention anti-LGBT laws) prevented them from living life as their genuine selves. He also knew that the only way to defeat that shame and overcome fear was to confront and overcome it by coming out.

At the time, this idea was outrageous. LGBT people seemed to have much more to lose than to gain by coming out. The shame associated with being queer created fear— fear of losing relationships, children, families, jobs and, due to anti-LGBT laws, personal liberty. Harvey Milk observed that coming out was a political statement, and he was right. Coming out meant that you stood for the right of people to be free to be who they are and that you were willing to risk everything for that right.

Harvey Milk’s ideas are now more than 40 years old. LGBT people have made great strides because he and others like him had the courage to come out and live their lives as their authentic selves. But, time and progress have not made these ideas any less relevant today than when Harvey Milk spoke them. Coming out is still the most powerful statement that any LGBT person can make— coming out takes away the power of shame and fear that comes with it. Shame and fear allow others to control our narrative. Coming out reverses that power dynamic and places us in control.

And, while coming out is by a personal decision by nature, it is one that has a powerful, positive impact on others. It does more than liberate one individual. It lays the foundation for others to come out too. When people see that someone they know, someone they look up to, or someone they love is living openly, it shows that it is ok for them to be who they are.

Happy National Coming Out Day. If you are out and living life as your true self, congratulations! If you are not yet out, perhaps this isn’t the right time and that’s ok. Just know that if and when you do, you will feel so much better.

The Long and Winding Road to Workplace Equity in New Jersey

By Kathy O’Malley

While New Jersey may be one of the smaller states in the nation, it does not shy away from being on the forefront when it comes to protecting the rights of its workers and citizens. Over the last decade, New Jersey has taken many steps to advance the rights of those who are diverse. This look in the rearview mirror highlights some of the Garden State’s efforts:


  • In a noteworthy ruling, the New Jersey Supreme Court expanded protection afforded by the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”) by recognizing a cause of action for post-discharge retaliation. Roa v. LAFE, 200 N.J. 55 (2010).


  • New Jersey banned discriminatory job advertisements that indicate that the unemployed need not apply or that current employment is a prerequisite for consideration for the posted job opportunity.


  • The New Jersey Appellate Division ruled that an employee subject to anti-Semitic slurs by supervisors who wrongfully perceived the employee to be Jewish had a viable claim under the LAD. Cowher v. Carson Roberts Site Construction & Engineering, Co., 425 N.J. Super. 285 (App. Div. 2012). Prior to this decision, protection to those perceived as members of a protected class was only afforded to those “perceived as” having a disability. In this groundbreaking ruling, the Appellate Division expanded the scope of “perceived as” protection under the LAD to anyone who is harassed or discriminated against based on an incorrect understanding of that person’s membership in a protected class.
  • New Jersey amended the New Jersey Equal Pay Act to require notice to employees of their right to be free of gender discrimination in the workplace, including inequity or bias in pay, compensation, benefits or other terms and conditions of employment.


  • The New Jersey Supreme Court ordered the State of New Jersey to extend the right to marry to same-sex couples, thereby affording them equal protection of the law under the New Jersey Constitution. Garden State Equality v. Dow, 216 N.J. 314 ( 2013).
  • In an effort to promote pay equity, New Jersey amended the LAD to ban retaliation against employees who ask for information about the job title, occupational category, rate of compensation (including benefits), gender, race, ethnicity, military status or national origin of any other employee or former employee. Lawmakers believed that allowing employees to freely discuss compensation and benefits was a step in the right direction toward exposing pay disparities and eliminating wage discrimination.


  • New Jersey enacted the New Jersey Pregnant Workers’ Fairness Act, which amended the LAD and afforded state law employment protections to pregnant employees.
  • The New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development published a Gender Equity Notice and accompanying regulations, establishing employer obligations to notify employees of their right to be free of gender inequality.
  • New Jersey enacted the Opportunity to Compete Act (commonly referred as the “Ban the Box Law”), requiring employers to eliminate the “check box” on employment applications that requests applicants to disclose criminal history information.


  • The New Jersey Supreme Court adopted a broad definition of supervisors, thereby expanding the pool of personnel whose conduct can give rise to vicarious liability for supervisory workplace harassment under the LAD. Aguas v. New Jersey, 220 N.J. 494 (2015)


  • The New Jersey Supreme Court expanded/clarified the scope of marital status protection afforded by the LAD, finding that the LAD prohibits an employer from discriminating against a current or prospective employee because the employee is single, married or transitioning from one state to another. Smith v. Millville Rescue Squad, 225 N.J. 373 (2016).


  • New Jersey amended its Ban the Box Law to cover expunged criminal records.


  • New Jersey amended the LAD to specify worker rights and protections associated with breastfeeding and expressing milk.
  • New Jersey enacted the Diane B. Allen Equal Pay Act, an amendment to the LAD that significantly expanded pay equity protections for New Jersey employees. Under the Diane B. Allen Equal Pay Act, it is an unlawful employment practice to pay an employee who is a member of any protected class under the LAD less compensation and benefits than employees outside the protected class for “substantially similar” work, unless the employer can demonstrate a recognized justification.


  • New Jersey enacted the Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair Act (“CROWN Act”). The CROWN Act prohibits discrimination against persons based on hair texture, hair type and protective hairstyles historically associated with race.

So what lies ahead for those of us working in New Jersey? Given New Jersey’s track record for establishing laws that promote diversity in the workplace, coupled with the nationwide social justice movement afoot, New Jerseyans should expect their state to continue its efforts to eradicate discrimination in the workplace. The long and winding road is not complete and sections remain unpaved. We have more work ahead and can expect the legislature, courts and administrative agencies to remain active in promulgating needed change.

So what can a New Jersey employer do? Of course, New Jersey employers must ensure compliance with the laws identified above. Navigating the road to compliance can be fraught with potholes and roadblocks. Employers can start by evaluating their existing policies, procedures and practices. This includes reviewing and updating their employee handbooks, as needed; developing and/or updating job descriptions; and auditing their hiring and compensation practices with the assistance of counsel to identify and address disparities based on protected characteristics.

There is no need to stop there, though. Employers certainly can go a step further by taking proactive measures to develop or expand diversity and inclusion initiatives. Employers who want to achieve best practices in diversity and inclusion should undertake a comprehensive review of the strengths and weaknesses of their current practices with the aid of counsel, and should develop a strategic plan to achieve their diversity and inclusion goals.

For More Information

If you have questions about this blog post, please contact Kathleen O’Malley at komalley@duanemorris.com, any of the attorneys in our Employment, Labor, Benefits and Immigration Practice Group, our Diversity and Inclusion Consulting Practice Group or the attorney in the firm with whom you are regularly in contact.

What Being a Hispanic/Latino Means to Me and How It has Influenced My Working and Personal Life

This blog post features a compilation of narratives from Duane Morris staff members in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month.

By Yolanda Arnavat-Parga

I was born in Cuba and came to the U.S. in the early 1960s along with my parents and grandparents who were born in Spain and Cuba. Being Hispanic to me means having the opportunity to live with extended family, celebrating everything with delicious food, and enjoying our culture and heritage. As a child, it meant speaking Spanish exclusively at home, honoring your parents/grandparents, embracing your family’s expectations and traditions and changing hats depending on where we were in order to fit in. Later on, it meant working hard to excel at school/work and espousing the right ethics to honor our family and trying to mitigate any erroneous preconceived ideas about Hispanics. Today, it means embracing the richness of our diverse customs, culture and heritage and being proud of the current and future contributions of all Hispanics.

By A. Venissa Fernandez

I was born in the Dominican Republic and emigrated to the United States when I was three years old. Thinking back, I had no idea how lucky I was to have parents that made the incredible sacrifice in choosing to immigrate to the U.S. coming here with very little knowledge of the culture, the rules, and even the language to raise two young children.

Being Dominican is part of my personality, interests, and tastes in life. My identity gave me a starting place, and a whole tribe of people to relate to. Coming from a big family also taught me about community, loyalty, and respect. These things are crucial to my character, and I directly attribute them to growing up in a big Dominican household. I learned at a very young age that we were different, our culture, humor, music, food, even our birthday parties were different than everyone else’s.

In New York, the Dominican culture thrives in neighborhoods like Washington Heights, where I grew up, which experienced an influx of Dominican immigrants in the 1960s. Today, as you walk through the neighborhood, you experience how rich our culture is from the Bachata and Merengue music playing out of any open apartment window or store front, to the no frills local eateries offering a taste of home, or even the famous corner store called “Bodega”, selling all the local and island favorites. Similar to what was displayed, thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical “In the Heights”. While growing up in Washington Heights helped me appreciate my Dominican heritage, I am defined just as much, if not more so, by my life-long experiences as a New Yorker, a very special breed of person.

Hispanic Heritage Month grew out of National Hispanic Heritage Week, which President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law in 1968. In 1987, Representative Esteban Torres pushed for a month-long commemoration. He argued that supporters of his bill “want the American people to learn of our heritage. We want the public to know that we share a legacy with the rest of the country, a legacy that includes artists, writers, Olympic champions, and leaders in business, government, cinema, and science. [The month-long celebration] will allow our nation to properly observe and coordinate events and activities to celebrate Hispanic culture and achievement.” Torres’ bill did not pass, but a year later, a similar bill – proposed by Senator Paul Simon – did, with President Ronald Reagan signing it into law on August 17, 1988.

Unlike Black History Month, Women’s History Month, and Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Hispanic Heritage Month begins mid-way through September. This is because September 15 and 16 mark the independence days of Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Mexico.

Hispanic Heritage Month, serves as a means for all members of the Latino community, to connect with their heritage showcasing the beauty of our culture, and different traditions of other Hispanic countries.

By Josephine F. Garcia

I reminisce on the times my Abuelo Santiago and Abuela Carmen would tell me stories while growing up. My Abuelo had established his own milk company in Cuba with hard work and dedication. It was one of his most gratifying accomplishments, and one he was forever proud of in his life. My Abuela raised three beautiful daughters and was a dedicated housewife. While listening to their history, it was evident how much they loved the Country they had left behind. These anecdotes of their life in Cuba demonstrated to me the values and principles I live by today.

As a first generation Cuban-American, I was blessed with the opportunity to live with my grandparents alongside my parents for many years. It is a Cuban tradition for the family to all live together. The characteristics that were instilled in my family and I reflect the lives of my grandparents in Cuba. They were and will eternally remain my foundation. My grandparents were the humblest people I have ever known. They lived a life of honesty, trust, loyalty and dedication to their family and work.

Being bi-lingual has given me an advantage in my personal and work life, as we live in a diverse America where there are so many people of other Latin cultures and who speak the Spanish language. I love everything about the Cuban culture, and I will always be proud of being Cuban. I will forever keep my Cuban heritage alive and I have also taught my children to continue the legacy.

By  Andrew J. Hanna

I am a Chicano. A Chicano is a chosen identity for people of Mexican descent born in the States. My mother, who was born in Mexico, made it her mission to ensure that her children were raised to understand both of the cultures in which they were born. Being born and raised bi-racially has allowed me to accept and understand people that are different than me. As a person of mixed race and cultures, it has enabled me to help others in finding opportunities that lay quietly waiting to be discovered. Most importantly, being bi-racial has allowed me to witness the beauty of people and their contributions to our society and world.

By Sofia Lowenberg

There’s a broad range for what it means to be Hispanic in the U.S. It applies to someone who’s fourth-generation American, or, in my case, to someone who’s second generation (though there is some debate what first and second generation means). My first language was Spanish. My mother, Maria, was born in Bogotá, Colombia and my father, Fernando, in Guatemala City, Guatemala— both came to the USA in the early 60’ as adults, met in New York, and married in 1974. Both my parents came here to live the American Dream and they are extremely proud of both my brother and me. A New Yorker, born and raised in Queens, NY, I am fortunate enough to have obtained an education in the world’s finest city.

My paternal grandparents were from Spain. As a gift for my mother’s 75th birthday, my mother and I went on a tour through Spain. We both felt a connection to Seville and Salamanca and I loved the vibe in Barcelona and Costa del Sol.

The Hispanic experience is incredibly diverse, it’s not just one point of view or perspective. For me, Hispanic Heritage Month serves as a means for all members of the Hispanic community, no matter their background, to connect with their heritage. I am sharing with my husband and my son the rich Hispanic culture, including teaching them Spanish and my love of music and dancing.

By Francisco Maldonado

I was born and raised in Puerto Rico. We are a friendly, family-oriented people who enjoy a rich Spanish influence. Being Hispanic has played a huge role in defining who I am and how I view the world. Of utmost importance are our really close-knit families and frequent family gatherings along with the Hispanic traditions that have shaped my experiences growing up. What better binds the family than food. Traditions such as Noche Buena (Christmas Eve), Año Viejo (New Years’ Eve), Los Reyes Magos (Three Kings’ Day), Fiestas de las Calles San Sebastián, Fiestas Patronales, Quinceañeros (Sweet Fifteen) to name a few. Something that cannot be absent during these family gatherings is delicious traditional food.

The taste and aromas of places, families and our histories are anchored in our memories by the foods and traditions we enjoy. My best memories go way back with my mother in the kitchen and my sisters hanging around watching her cook our daily meals and listening to what transpired during the day. The love and joy with which she cooked for us daily and the preparation of our traditional feasts significantly impacted me. Cooking was such a predominant part of our daily life that I chose to get a degree in Culinary Arts many years after college. As a result of my culinary training along with my childhood experiences and spending time in the kitchen with my mother, I have been able to mix and adapt my cuisine and eating habits. I cherish the memories of cooking special recipes passed down by my grandmother, my mother, and my aunts; I like to share them now with my family and friends. Nothing is more flavorful and portrays my Hispanic heritage more than a Pernil con Arroz con Gandules (Roast Pork with Rice and Pigeon Peas) for our Christmas Eve parties or mom’s Arroz relleno con Pollo (Baked Chicken and Rice) for special occasions, or Bistec con Arroz con Habichuelas y Tostones (Beefsteak, Rice and Beans and Fried Plantains), after work. I enjoy integrating these traditions in the different events I plan for the Miami and Boca Raton offices as it is fulfilling sharing and teaching others about them.

By Diane Martinez 

I am proud to be Mexican-American. I was born in East Los Angeles, a predominately Hispanic side of the city. My parents were both born in the United States but my grandparents were of Mexican, Native American and European descent.

My father and father-in-law were born in poverty in 1932.   They both proudly served this country at a time when there was little opportunity. That experience opened the door for them to have successful careers and to provide a better living for their families than they had ever known. My father in-law was one of sixteen children. He grew up with little but his parents taught their children about devotion to God. The children learned to dance with each other and to have a joy for living. My father spent his entire career working on the very first space shuttle and subsequent shuttles for space exploration until he retired. He says that growing up he never imagined being a part of something so extraordinary.

What does it mean to identify with my heritage? It means that I am part of a people who have persevered and worked hard to succeed and live the American dream. We have strong family ties and family pride. We have faith, loyalty and passion and apply those traits to everything we do personally and professionally. My relatives have worked the land, served this country, and fought for civil rights. We are a family of humble beginnings, yet every generation has worked hard to succeed

It doesn’t hurt that we also make great music and some of the world’s best food!

By Laura I. Medina

Being a bilingual Puerto Rican in America comes with both advantages as well as some unfortunate “disadvantages.” Growing up in a Puerto Rican household, there is a dynamic culture such as amazing Spanish food, salsa dancing and telenovelas I grew up watching with my mom and my abuela (grandmother) just to name a few. My family stressed the importance of working hard every day, doing well in school so that I can get a scholarship to go to college (we didn’t have the money to pay for it), and I also found playing soccer to be an outlet. All of these things were vital to my success in America is what I taught.

Hispanics are the largest minority in the United States and only growing. Being fluent in reading and writing another language should come as a competitive advantage especially in the workforce. However, I quickly learned that this isn’t always the case as those same traditions I had embraced weren’t always embraced outside of home. As a child I remember struggling with balancing sticking with my culture and traditions, but at the same time trying not to show my roots to the world outside too much due to my experiences with prejudice. My brother, sister, and I only spoke only Spanish in the household then switched to English when we went to school.

As I got older, I learned that this carries over to the workforce and that it wasn’t just me. Hispanics suppress parts of their personas at work such as appearance and communication style to better fit in with the mainstream. I found myself doing the same to try to “make it” or get ahead. I was hiding the very things that make me who I am. Today I know that a large part of my success and drive comes from the morals and values from my Hispanic culture driven to me at a young age. It is my identity. If we instead embrace our differences and utilize them, we can actually be more competitive in a global market rather than trying to fit in to the one that currently exists


Kamala Harris is Inspiring Women of Color Across our Country

Manita RawatBy Manita Rawat

It’s not that Geraldine Ferarro didn’t inspire me. When I saw her on my TV at the age of six and heard her vice presidential acceptance speech, I thought “women can be whatever they want to be.” But, I also wondered if that notion applied to people like me—women and girls of color. Growing up, whether on TV or the big screen, there just weren’t women of color for me to even see. Wonder Woman, Charlie’s Angels, Jem and the Holograms, and Baby from Dirty Dancing all had something I didn’t—a lighter shade of skin. This lack of visibility for people like me did not deter me from any goals, but did cause me to wonder if this dearth of representation would someday be a roadblock simply because the world had never seen a woman of color in a particular role. After watching Kamala Harris accept the vice presidential nomination, I no longer wonder.

Harris is the first Black woman and the first South Asian to be nominated for the VP slot by a major political party. Her charisma and energy has brought a vigor to the 2020 presidential campaign, which is dominated by white men. I saw a woman of color breaking the mold and in a role traditionally filled by men or white women. Seeing her on the stage at the Democratic Convention gave me hope and faith in my own ambitions. I now know that in my lifetime, I may see a woman of color go on to be a presidential candidate and, hopefully, president. More importantly, young women of color can now look to Harris and see a woman that looks like them on every screen in their home. As Joe Biden said, “little Black and brown girls, who so often feel overlooked and undervalued” can see “themselves for the first time in a new way.”

Harris’s meteoric rise enables young professional women of color to dream bigger and not limit their ambitions just because they want to be in a position traditionally held by white men or white women. Watching Harris, women of color doctors can now strive to be the chief physician of a hospital. Black and brown women with MBAs can move past middle management and become CEOs. Women of color actresses can have the lead role in a major motion picture. As Obama once said, “yes we can.”

As a young managing partner of an office for a large international law firm, I’ve wondered whether this position would be a stepping stone for another leadership role or, perhaps, I would plateau. After seeing Harris on the national stage, I no longer worry about some de-facto plateau. The limit does not exist.

Enabling Innovation and Profitability While Creating an Inclusive World with Diverse Design

Around the world, companies are leaving money on the table.  Lack of diversity and inclusion in “The Room Where It Happens,” whether the “IT” is a board-room, an innovation team, or a design team, repeatedly has been shown to affect the bottom line.  In the realm of innovation alone, experts have estimated that “the size of the economy could be roughly 3 to 4 percent higher if women and underrepresented minorities were included in the innovative process from beginning to end.”

To read the full text of this post by Heidi Lunasin and Yalda Hajavi, the first of a multipart series, please visit the Duane Morris Fashion, Retail and Consumer Branded Products Blog.

The Power To Do Something

Anastasia KaupBy Anastasia N. Kaup

Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with a male “C-suite” officer at a prominent investment fund, with whom I’ve worked for years. Among other topics, our conversation touched on diversity and inclusion, and on that topic, the officer said: “we’ll never improve diversity and inclusion numbers in business or law unless those who are in positions with the power to do something, actually do something, to support others who are diverse or women.” That comment really struck a chord with and inspired me, and I couldn’t agree more.

One recent estimate put the percentage of diverse CEOs of Fortune 500 companies at 5%, in the aggregate across all diverse groups, and the estimate of female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies at 7% total. The proportions of diverse and female employees of those companies, and in the general population, are of course much, much higher.

Most large law firms aren’t faring much better than Fortune 500 companies. Fewer than 7% of all equity partners in the largest law firms are diverse, and fewer than 20% of all equity partners at those firms are women. Diverse individuals comprise around 30% of all law students. Women comprise over 50% of graduates from top law schools.

Somewhere along the way, diverse individuals and women are getting lost in the shuffle or pushed aside while non-diverse individuals and men are succeeding to the highest positions in business and the law. While diverse and female representation at the highest levels in large businesses and law firms has been increasing, by a tiny amount, each year over the past decade or so, there’s still a long way to go until diverse individuals and women achieve parity with their non-diverse and male peers.

The question is, how can we affect positive change and increase the numbers of diverse individuals and women represented in positions of leadership in business, and in the equity partnership ranks at law firms? There are many ways that might work, but one key way that is almost certain to work is for clients to use their power and influence to be a force for positive change.

As the “C-suite” officer I spoke with said, clients (both those who are diverse and/or female individuals themselves, and allies who are non-diverse and/or male), with the power to direct business to other businesses or to law firms, can make it known that they want talented and qualified diverse individuals and/or women working on their matters. They can also insist upon those individuals receiving the credit for that work.

I am proud to and fortunate enough to work with one of the top banks in the world, which happens to have a brilliant in-house legal team that is ~80% female and/or diverse, who have used their influence with my law firm to insist that I, as a diverse and female Partner, receive the credit for the work performed (by me or other attorneys) on their matters. Having clients like that advocate for attorneys like me, can make all the difference for change. (Though I’m also grateful to work for a law firm that recognizes the importance of supporting its attorneys, particularly diverse and female attorneys, and to have the support of firm management (including from non-diverse and male allies at the highest levels), who value diversity and makes sure to provide credit where due, anyway. That’s not usually the case for many diverse and female partners at other law firms.)

Some of the best mentors and sponsors I’ve had in my career have been non-diverse and male individuals. In order to achieve parity and representation in the highest levels of business and law, those of us who are diverse and/or women will need allies, particularly those in positions of power, who understand the importance of diversity and inclusion, just as much as we’ll need other diverse individuals and women, to support us. There aren’t enough of us who are diverse and/or women in businesses or the law yet, to lift each other up and achieve parity on our own.

Here’s to hoping that those in positions of power with the power to do something, actually do something, tangible and today, to support diverse individuals and women, in business and in law.

We Must Not Overlook Recent Historic Diversity Milestones

Neville BilimoriaBy Neville Bilimoria

During the pandemic, it is so hard for us to stay connected and focused, much less remember what day of the week it is. Some, like myself, seem like we are glued to our screens, working away, and have little time to look up and focus on what is happening outside of our isolated home offices. That’s why I feel we have to step back, take a breath, and really internalize and absorb some of the historic diversity milestones that have occurred just recently over the last month, and not let the coronavirus and our collective isolation divert our attention away from these history-making milestones:

1) The Passing of a Hero (July 17, 2020): First, there’s Congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis who served in the United States House of Representatives for Georgia’s 5th congressional district from 1987 until his death last month. Congressman Lewis showed us all that is right and good with the important Civil Rights Movement over the years. His passing allowed us to look back upon his storied life, urging us to continue his legacy of making “good trouble.” His historic march on Washington with Martin Luther King, Jr., his march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Alabama on “Bloody Sunday” where he was beaten almost to death by State police, and his general march for equality will remain ingrained in our history despite his death, with his legacy marching on in the conscience of all Americans that he so duly affected to implement change. In his legacy, watching his funeral, I saw the numerous depictions of his amazing life. I realized that we have to honor his great legacy by continuing his pioneering ways as we all strive toward equality and justice for all, to a time where we can eliminate racism, bias, and inequality in America.

2) Equality Takes Flight (July 31, 2020): Second, there was the announcement that Lt. j.g. Madeline G. Swegle would be the U.S. Navy’s first Black female tactical aircraft pilot, marking a historic milestone for naval aviation. This one even I couldn’t believe. What was shocking to me was that only now did we have the first Black female to break this Navy glass ceiling! Also shocking was the fact that the only other time the glass ceiling was broken in the Navy for women was way back when Rosemary Mariner became the first female jet pilot in 1974, and when Brenda Robinson became the first Black woman to become a Navy flight instructor, evaluator and VIP transport pilot in the 1980s. What an achievement for Lt. Swegle, especially significant given the particular timing this summer of her ascendance, placing hope in our hearts for continued change in a year that has been fraught with social unrest. Did anyone else shed a tear when they saw the images of her receiving her “golden wings”? Truly historic, and an event that had everyone saying “it’s about time!”

3) A New Race In A Political Race (August 12, 2020): And then there was the announcement by Vice President Joe Biden of his choice for his Vice Presidential running mate, Congresswoman Kamala Harris. This is now another first for Black women, and Asian women, with Harris becoming the first Black and Indian woman ever to be considered for the vice presidency on a major campaign ticket. Should Biden and Harris win, this will be yet another watershed moment in our history for African Americans everywhere, and will undoubtedly help to strengthen the ongoing fight for equality in our country. Her acceptance speech as the running mate of Joe Biden on August 12, 2020 was heartfelt and poised. Her speech and her ascendancy also showed everyone that she was taking center stage not just as a “diverse” candidate in front of America, but as a strong, powerful woman deserving of her role as possibly the next Vice President.

Bringing the historic events full circle, in her speech Congresswoman Harris honored John Lewis and his legacy by demanding passage of the Voters Rights Act championed by John Lewis, tipping her hand to those that fought before her, and who paved the way to allow her to ascend to her mark as the first Black female Vice Presidential candidate.
These three historic moments help us to gain hope for acceptance in these times of despair and social unrest. I am thankful for these glimmers of hope that not only make us proud to be Americans, but that also compel us and inspire us to do more to achieve the true diversity and inclusion that is still needed in America.

Representation Matters and It’s Good Business

Mark LernerBy Mark Lerner 

When I started my legal career at a small firm over 25 years ago, I had trepidations over whether I could be myself and practice law.  Would partners want to work with me?  Would clients?  I had come out of the closet before going to law school and was even a member of the law school’s LGBT law student group. I didn’t want to be back in the closet at work, but I was also afraid to be fully out.

After I received an offer, I “outed” myself to a hiring partner who seemed sympathetic so I could test the waters and see if I would be able to be open.  That went OK, and I accepted the offer.  However, after I arrived, I was warned by a couple of associates that I might want to be careful around certain partners, including, the head of the firm.  (My mentor advised that it wasn’t that he was homophobic, rather he just didn’t really want to know about anybody’s love life.  Over time I realized that this was a rationalization and wasn’t really true.)  I didn’t exactly go back in the closet, but I found myself censoring myself.  I carefully excised references to my partner and was a bit vague and cagey in discussing what I had done over a weekend.  (Back then, before we were married, I called him my partner.  It was confusing in the law firm context.  It’s much easier now that I can just call him my husband.)

After a while, when I was more confident that my legal skills were appreciated and that I was valued, I became more open and eventually brought my husband to firm events. The sky didn’t fall.  Nonetheless I was still often reserved with clients. I engaged in the same self-censorship when meeting new clients for the first time, and even beyond.  I didn’t fully answer questions and in casual conversation would elide facts that would signal I was gay.  Eventually, I forced myself to end this practice as well. It seemed to me that the deepest client relationships were those in which clients were or became friends. How could this happen if they didn’t actually know me?  So I let down my guard and began being more authentic in conversations.  Again the sky didn’t fall.

In fact, from both these new coming out journeys there were really only positive effects. First, I became more invested in the firm, since it was somewhere I could be comfortable being myself. Second, partners who I had been warned about became some of my biggest supporters. One shared with me the joy he experienced going to his first same-sex wedding. When I adopted a baby, another even commented that he thought I was doing a wonderful thing. Finally, I did indeed develop stronger relationships with my clients who came to know me as a person.  I’m not sure that being out has helped be get new business, but it has certainly strengthened my existing client relationships.  It also made me a better lawyer, since it eliminated the unnecessary expenditure of psychic energy that is involved in worrying about who will know or find out or what I can say in a business setting.  As a bonus, I believe that by being out and true to myself I changed some hearts and minds – of partners, and likely clients as well. Just being visible erased some of the mystery for them and made it harder for the to see me as somehow “other.”  I realize how much representation and people hearing personal stories matters.  It makes people realize there are more points of connection than differences: I’m a dad as much as I’m a “gay dad.”  I have the same joys and struggles as a parent. I know I have been so appreciative of hearing the stories of diverse friends and colleagues over the past month.

I would like to think the world has changed enough that today a young lawyer would never even have to think twice about being authentically themselves. (And thankfully the Supreme Court has now made it the law of the land that one cannot be fired for being authentically one’s own gender or sexuality.)  As Pride month comes to a close and we reflect on what is hopefully a meaningful awakening in this country to “white privilege”/“white fragility.” I hope that young lawyers will keep moving the profession forward and pushing the system to truly recognize that our diversity is our greatest strength.  It is true for the country as a whole and true for the practice and business of law.

*This blog post series has been created to celebrate Pride.