My 22-year-old son tells me that the days of sexism and racism are gone, and for all I know that may well be the case for his generation, but it’s not for mine. I’m amazed at the constant examples of sexism and racism and other isms that I see regularly in my professional and personal lives. Some are blatant and on purpose: others are simply ignorant or unthinking. I feel the need to warn law firms how easy it is to offend clients by not taking this seriously.
Trouble can start with something as simple as a sloppy database. By way of example, I recently bought a boat – an 18.5-foot aluminum Kingfisher to be precise. It was a dream of mine for some time, so I’m quite proud of having gone through with it.
Unfortunately, I was busy the weekend it went on sale so I asked my husband and his friend (both accomplished boaters and fishers) to see the boat and try to negotiate the best possible price from the family-run marina selling it. They didn’t achieve any savings for me but they were convinced that I should add on a GPS/Fish Finder and a kicker switch for the motor. Thanks, guys. I went in the next week to sign the paperwork and pay the deposit and get things rolling. While it was clear I was paying for the boat myself, I did ask that it be registered in both my husband’s and my name. Happy birthday and Christmas for the next twenty years, dear.
Two week’s after I’d taking possession of the boat, my husband is listening to his voice mail on speaker when we hear a message form the boat dealer asking him how he likes his new boat. A week later, my husband received a letter from the dealer again thanking him for his patronage, and asking for a good rating when the follow-up survey arrives from the manufacturer.
This isn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened but when I’ve expressed my anger about such instances before, I have usually been told to let it go and stop being so sensitive. That’s what I was told years ago when a referee tried to kick me of the field during my son’s soccer game because parents were supposed to be in the bleachers. I was in fact one of the coaches, and ironically, the most certified coach on the field. But the (adult) ref assumed that a female must simply be a parent.
Today I watched a video that replicated that experience but in this case, for a young African American lawyer (Bryan Stevenson) who was mistaken by a judge for being the defendant, and told to leave the court until his lawyer arrived. You can watch his description of the event and subsequent comments on the equal justice initiative Facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/equaljusticeinitiative/ Look for the posting from “brief but spectacular” from the PBS News Hour.
Mine are first world, Canadian problems of course. But the anger, frustration and strong sense of wrong I felt in these instances are I’m sure shared by all who feel marginalized, discriminated against and under-valued. And our next reaction is: that person doesn’t deserve to be in a position of any authority or influence.
What can law firms learn from this? Take the time and energy to get it right. Understand who your client is. Don’t assume it’s the man!!!! Spell their name correctly. If it’s unclear in your database who is male or female (or prefers a gender-neutral term) then find a way to include that information in the database– and ask the client first how they would like to be referenced.
When you plan a client event, consider your target market in terms of age, gender, cultural heritage and ensure you aren’t making biased assumptions about who should or shouldn’t attend. And PLEASE ensure your presentations aren’t all done by a panel of 50+ year old Caucasian males.
Ensure the photos on your website, brochures, newsletters and ads are also suitably diverse. Ensure your leadership teams include individuals that span the range of diversity in your firm, and in your client base.
Embracing diversity has real corporate value. For example, the reason that large corporations with a higher percentage of female board members are more profitable (http://www.catalyst.org/media/companies-more-women-board-directors-experience-higher-financial-performance-according-latest) is that 85% of most major purchase decisions (houses, cards, electronics and family BOATS) are made by women. So it helps to have women shaping company values, policies and practices. But don’t stop there. The world is comprised of an amazingly diverse range of individuals. When we accept, embrace and take advantage of this wealth of perspective by having a good cross section of our organizations and client base considered or represented in our decisions and actions, we develop a better product. But this does take effort and it often starts with the “small stuff”, like a database, or images on your website.
Luckily, this is an easy fix – it just takes recognition and a little bit of effort. But it’s worth it, even simply from a risk-management stance. It’s hard enough to recover from insults made in ignorance. Let’s at least seek to limit the chance of insults resulting from sloppiness or laziness.
Heather Gray-Grant is a business strategist, marketing expert and executive coach for law firms and lawyers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org