DEI Takeaways from the 3rd Virginia State Bar Diversity Forum

On April 21, 2023, Sands Anderson attended the Virginia State Bar’s Third Annual Forum on Diversity in the Legal Profession. This well-attended program provided dynamic speakers focused on the topic of diversity, equity, and inclusion (“DEI”) in the legal profession and provided excellent takeaways that can benefit all organizations engaging in similar work. Below are the tips that resonated the most with our attorneys in attendance:

Faith Alejandro: Lia Dorsey, Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer for the national employment law firm, Ogletree Deakins, kicked off a difficult but essential conversation about the driving force behind DEI in organizations. She stated that “DEI is not Black and White. It’s Green.”  This means that tying DEI efforts to a business’s bottom line or to an individual’s compensation is the most effective way to make achieve your DEI goals. Research abounds about the increased revenue gained by a diverse workforce, as summarized by a recent article by Stephanie Grana, the current VSB President.  Indeed, DEI leaders have much evidence to justify the “business case” for DEI. Today, there is little room for  skepticism regarding the value of this work to a business. Conference speakers also emphasized the need for DEI to be intentionally integrated into an organization’s entire strategic plan—DEI should not be an afterthought. Doing so demonstrates that DEI truly reflects the core values of an organization and sets the stage for authentic and long-lasting progress, while reaping the tangible benefits of DEI in terms of competition, innovation, revenue, and customer service.

Terrence Graves:  All of the sessions were excellent, however, the session entitled “Racial Reconciliation, Civil Rights and Jury Abuse in Virginia” was particularly interesting and engaging for me.  The session began with a review of the status of the law before and after the United Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford and how that allowed the proliferation of Jim Crow laws that were utilized to suppress the rights of African Americans including their right to sit on juries. It also discussed how the United Supreme Court’s decision in Batson v. Kentucky and its progeny is being used to various degrees to combat preclusion of African-Americans and other minorities or individuals within protected classes from serving on juries for no other reason than because of the color of their skin or their gender. I’ve been on both sides of Batson challenges to peremptory strikes and this presentation reminded me that the best way to represent your client and obtain the type of jury you believe will return the best possible verdict is (i) to conduct a fulsome voir dire that delves into the potential bias that an individual may harbor towards your client and (ii) to use your peremptory strikes based on that information and not based upon pre-conceived notions and stereotypes. Additionally, as an aside, I learned for the first time that Dred Scott was born in Southampton County, Virginia, which is where I grew up for the majority of my formative years and where I went to public schools until I left to go to college. He was named Samuel Blow at birth, but his name was changed to Dred Scott when his family was moved to Alabama. You never know what you will learn at a CLE event!

Lindsay Bunting Eubanks: I loved the imagery of an analogy made by the keynote speaker, The Honorable Doris H. Causey, Judge, Virginia Court of Appeals, when she asked the participants (and I am paraphrasing): “When you were a little kid, who of you wanted to color with the box of 8 crayons, and who wanted to color a picture with the box of 120 crayons?”  Hands raised in the room; consensus was that we all wanted the 120 pack of crayons.  I definitely identified as the kid wanting the bigger variety of colors to make my pictures. Then, linking this concept to efforts to improve DEI, she explained, when we have more colors to choose from, our picture is better: when we only have eight colors, all of our pictures look the same. Powerful and simple, I agree with this analogy. If we liken the “picture” to our work product, then, the work product produced by our organizations will be more impressive and complex when it is informed by many different viewpoints and identities. Taking this concept and relating it to the business case for DEI, when an organization is composed of a diverse group of attorneys (meaning not just gender or race differences, but also religion, disability, culture, age, life experience, sexual orientation, gender identity, veteran status, etc.), then that organization will be able to secure business from diverse sources. In turn, the diverse sources of work from diverse networks means a diverse portfolio of assets that reduces risks to the health and longevity of a business.

Elizabeth White: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” The Honorable Doris H. Causey, Judge, Virginia Court of Appeals. Modern brain science informs that we each have our own unique world view and implicit biases based on our individual life experiences, and this is why events such as the Diversity Forum are so critical to furthering diversity, equity and inclusion in our legal profession and society. Lia J. Dorsey, Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer, Ogletree Deakins, Washington, D.C. pointed to the fact that 69% of lawyers recently polled say implicit bias is the biggest challenge for DEI in law firms. There were so many nuggets of insight and wisdom imparted by the panelists during each session and by the attendees in the audience who spoke during the Q&A period following each session. For example, Michael N. Herring, Managing Partner, McGuireWoods, Richmond, VA discussed the difference between racial awareness versus racial discrimination: “Awareness of racial thinking is not the same thing as racism. Awareness is not a problem except to the extent it becomes distracting. There is a burden to racial awareness – you have to reconcile a burden that someone not of your race may not see.” And on the topic of how we view our individual role in enhancing awareness and promoting DEI in our communities, The Honorable Lorrie Sinclair Taylor, Presiding Judge, Loudoun County General District Court offered the analogy of a cup of tea: “Be the tea bag that is going to permeate the environment you are joining; that is how we change these implicit biases.” Kudos to the Virginia State Bar for revising the rules around CLE to authorize CLE credit for DEI educational events like this Forum and to the Virginia State Bar Diversity Conference for hosting a quality thought provoking Forum!

To learn more about Sands Anderson’s diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, please visit our Diversity & Inclusion web page.