Diverse Leaders in Law: Why getting "back to normal" sounds like a bad idea to many

Laura Newpoff
For Columbus CEO
Diverse Leaders in Law is a quarterly forum hosted by Columbus CEO.

The murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020 sparked an uprising in cities across America that took calls for racial justice to heights not seen since the civil rights movement of the 1960s. His death, which was captured on video, led to massive protests across the globe and calls for police reform and passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.

While Chauvin recently was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to 22.5 years in prison, the struggle for equality and accountability persists.

Columbus CEO and sponsors Barnes & Thornburg and Frost Brown Todd explored the topic at its July 6 Diverse Leaders in Law session – “George Floyd: One Year Later. How far have we come? And what work still needs to be done?” The critical work of leveling the playing field for Black and brown people must continue, and that includes changes spurred on by the corporate world.

The panelists were:

  • Dawn Rosemond, firm diversity partner, Barnes & Thornburg
  • Michael Coleman, partner-in-charge of government law, Ice Miller
  • Kelly Livingston, assistant vice president, senior counsel, CIB technology, JPMorgan Chase

Diverse Leaders in Law is a quarterly discussion from local thought leaders advancing gender and racial equity in the legal profession at a critical time. The following are excerpts from the conversation, which have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Why going back to ‘normal’ isn’t a welcome idea

Coleman, Columbus’ former longtime mayor, said Floyd’s death has resulted in a new activism in the city, corporate, civic and legal communities. He doesn’t want that enthusiasm to wane. And he definitely doesn't want to hear anyone pining “to go back to the old days."

“Going back to normal is to me, it's like saying, ‘Let's Make America Great Again.’ And when that was used back in (the presidential election of) 2016, it reminded me of: Let's go back to Jim Crow. Let's go back to segregation. Let's go back to the time in which it was OK not to have Black folks on your board,” Coleman said. “It was (at a time) OK not to have Black folks in your law firm. You know, that, to me, is 'normal.'

“I think there will be a new normal that comes out of the activism of this past year,” he said, referring to a heightened focus on diversity in law firms; in the business community, including at the board level; among partners companies do business with; and in the civic environment. “So much needed to happen, that I think there are steps in the right direction. We need to see a continuation of those steps, and not a conclusion. We've made steps but we haven't gotten to the destination in our journey,” Coleman said.

Livingston agreed. When she hears any kind of reference to a return to normalcy, what she hears is a return to the disenfranchisement of people of color. To keep the momentum going, law firms and corporate America will need to think bigger than small gestures.

“Oh, it’s African American History Month so we’ll put out a commercial that features a Black family. Or it’s Pride Month, so we’ll raise a flag. No. We’re not settling for small token changes. We want true change,” she said. And it’s not just economic equality, she said. Work needs to continue to increase equality in health care, at the voting booth and at the corporate table.

“2020 uncovered not a rock, but a boulder if you look at all of the disparities that came to light," Livingston said. "So, whenever I hear a return to normal, what I hear is people are ready to put that boulder back in place because they feel uncomfortable with what we’ve uncovered.”

Taking action against racism

Shortly after Floyd’s murder, more than 1,200 central Ohio business, institutional and nonprofit leaders signed a letter of support of Columbus City Council’s resolution declaring racism a public health crisis. Coleman wondered how many of those businesses actually did something within their companies to effect change or how many plan to. There are a variety of ways to take action, even in the short term. At Ice Miller, for example, a racial justice task force that is tackling issues such as the impact of race and the administration of the death penalty, is partnering with five other prominent Columbus law firms to address mass incarceration of people of color and offering pro bono clinics.

Rosemond said law firm leaders can tap into the wealth of data they have about their associates to make change. “Look at who’s there and who’s not there. Look at your department heads, your office heads, your partnership heads” and then assess whether the firm has the right representation in place. It’s also important to cultivate a diverse talent pipeline, and that includes investing in programs to help Black and brown kids remove barriers to entering the legal profession, she said.

“Whether in a firm or corporate environment, you have to decide whether you’re interested, or committed, because they’re very different,” Rosemond said. “If you’re interested in diversity, you will do it only when it feels good or when someone is looking or a client’s pushing you. But when you’re committed to it, you’ll do it when it’s hard.

“One of the dangers of this is that it’s a 400-plus-year-old problem,” Rosemond said. “And because people want to win and check a box, they want everything done tomorrow. I do think we can do something now, but that doesn't mean you failed if you don't resolve racism right now – that's just not going to happen.

"It’s hard work, not just if you're the CEO or the chief diversity officer, or whatever the title is. It's the hard work of everybody. If the organization truly cares about it, this is something that's going to be integrated into every aspect of how you do business.”

Laura Newpoff is a freelance writer.