Why Diversity Is Important in the Legal Sector in the US
Here we speak to Erick Russell who discusses how the legal sector’s diversity problems can be addressed.
Growing up in New Haven, Connecticut, Erick noticed there weren’t many police officers who were people of colour. He set out to become a police officer but wound up becoming a lawyer. Now, he mentors Black law students and was just named to the American Bar Association’s “On the Rise – Top 40 Young Lawyers” Award program. He offers some interesting insights below on why diversity is still an issue and what can be done to help other black people and people of colour progress in the legal sector.
- Why is diversity an issue in the legal workplace in the US?
It’s important to put conversations regarding diversity into context. In the United States, many often talk about our long history of slavery, systemic racism, and oppression as if these issues are ancient history and no longer present. The reality is that systemic racism has had, and continues to have, a profound impact on communities of colour, affecting employment, education, housing and several other aspects of life.
It starts with providing more equity in communities of colour and levelling the playing field with respect to education and experiential opportunities.
The legal profession is not immune to these challenges. In fact, many challenges impacting underrepresented communities are often heightened in the legal profession. In addition to facing many of the challenges caused by systemic racism, generally, the legal profession was also segregated in many ways, and it’s going to take time and a deliberate effort to change the status quo. Approximately 85 per cent of lawyers in the United States are white. Only 5 per cent of lawyers are African American and only 5 per cent of lawyers are Hispanic. And despite growing minority populations in the United States, none of these statistics have changed significantly over the past decade.
- What opportunities could be given to those in minority communities to progress in the legal sector?
It starts with providing more equity in communities of colour and levelling the playing field with respect to education and experiential opportunities. It’s hard enough for historically disadvantaged communities to break through the difficulty of often being the first in their family to attend college or enter a certain profession, but those challenges become even larger when communities are starting from a place of adversity. We’ve seen a huge push from law firms and companies to make diversity and inclusion a priority, and so much of that effort starts with giving professional opportunities to diverse people who have historically been excluded from the profession. Among other things, Pullman & Comley has been participating in a first-year summer associate program called the Cultural Diversity Initiative sponsored by the UConn Law School Diversity Committee, mentors law students through the Lawyers Collaborative for Diversity, and has several attorneys who participate in Connecticut’s affinity bar groups, such as the George W. Crawford Black Bar Association and Connecticut Hispanic Bar Association. This work has been key to providing opportunities to help young lawyers of colour progress professionally and secure employment in the legal field.
People from diverse communities are able to draw upon their unique experiences and perspectives to best represent their clients and provide value for their organisations.
- What difference would having a multitude of voices in the legal field make?
The legal profession should be a reflection of our larger society. It’s our obligation to have as many voices, backgrounds, and perspectives as possible represented to best serve our clients and communities.
Having a diverse group of voices simply provides a better product for clients. Having people at our firm who think about issues differently, have had different experiences, and understand different perspectives is something that benefits every client relationship we have.
This has been easy to see in practice. Several of my colleagues at Pullman & Comley who now practice law, had previously worked in industries, such as energy and construction, and they draw on those experiences every day. Similarly, people from diverse communities are able to draw upon their unique experiences and perspectives to best represent their clients and provide value for their organisations.
- Can you share more about your work mentoring Black students?
I’ve always believed that we have an obligation to give back as much as we receive. I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunities that I’ve had because of those who have paved the way for me and guided me along in my process. Organisations like the Lawyers Collaborative for Diversity and the George W. Crawford Black Bar Association were huge resources for me, providing mentorship, interviewing experience, and opportunities to build relationships in the legal field. These experiences were critical to my success in law school and while seeking employment, and the relationships I built and the knowledge I gained remain beneficial to this day. It’s important to me that, where possible, I provide that same guidance and support for the next person coming up after me.
- How do you/would you advise POC to prepare themselves for law – especially as they will be representing more than just themselves (i.e, representing other people of the same background/colour)?
The most important advice I received when entering law school was to be confident in who you are and what you’re capable of doing. Know that you belong in every room you step into, and don’t shy away from making space for yourself. There will often be times when you are the only person of colour in the room. Take pride in the fact that you are representing more than just yourself, and stay true to who you are.
Building relationships is also important. Participate in legal bar organisations and attend events with your peers.
- What are your tips on being named to the ABA “On the Rise – Top 40 Young Lawyers”?
The most important tip for any young lawyer is to really learn your craft. Put the time in and focus on developing your skills and learning your practice. It is important to understand that the practice of law is a profession, not a job, and the time and energy that you dedicate to it is broader and more involved than thinking about going to work and going home.
Building relationships is also important. Participate in legal bar organisations and attend events with your peers. Invest your time in building your network. Get involved in organisations or causes that are important to you. And, remember that your reputation within the legal community is everything – being known as an ethical, responsive and diligent advocate for your clients will serve you well in the long run.
Erick A Russell
Pullman & Comley
Erick Russell practices in the firm’s Government Finance Department. Erick represents state and municipal governments in the issuance of tax-exempt and taxable bonds and other debt obligations. In addition, Erick represents issuers of 501(c)(3) bonds, qualified private activity bonds, revenue bonds and conduit borrowings. He has drafted primary financing documents, including bond authorisations, purchase contracts, opinions and bond and note closing documents. In addition, he has conducted due diligence and legal research with respect to state and municipal law issues relating to the issuance of bonds and notes.