What are you prepared to do?
A powerful minority in our society is attacking vulnerable outsiders and assaulting the rule of law. Lawyers belong on the front lines of defence. Where do you stand?
Illustration by Midjourney
It's only water in a stranger’s tear
Looks are deceptive but distinctions are clear
A foreign body and a foreign mind
Never welcome in the land of the blind
We’re foundering in a wave of tribalism. Too many people and social institutions are now openly discriminatory and segregationist, callous to outsiders and cruel to minorities. Politicians attack immigrants and refugees; preachers vilify women and queer and trans people; judges legitimize bigotry; social media pollute the public square. Those who have, push away those who lack; those who came through the door, turn around and lock it behind them. Everything for us; nothing for you.
“If you’ve never had the Supreme Court decide if you have the same rights as others, you have privilege.” I’ve seen that quote frequently in the last several days, and it hits home for me. My demography — I’m a man, I’m white, I’m heterosexual, I’m able-bodied, I belong to a Christian religion — is the power profile of our society.
If you meet any of these descriptions, you’re welcomed in the places of comfort and safety. If you meet all of them, you get to ignore all the afflictions that your advantages create. You’re the dominant tribe. You’re the default setting. You’re normal. And you get to make the rules that bind everyone else. That’s the tribe to which I belong, whose benefits I reap every day, whether I like to admit it or not.
So people like me have a particular responsibility. Either we clearly repudiate the selfishness and cruelty exemplified by members of our tribe and assert a different set of values, or we accept the damning judgment that we could have lowered the walls and lengthened the table when the need was greatest, but chose not to do so. I’m going with the first option.
I believe that every person on this planet is a child of God. Taking away rights and opportunities from any person, or refusing to help them gain rights and opportunities, because of their sex, their race, their identity, what they believe, who they love, where they came from, their difference, is wrong, always has been wrong, always will be wrong. If you want these things, then you and I are implacably opposed.
On top of all the other demographic privileges I enjoy, I’m also a lawyer. I’m a member of this profession not because I’m especially smart or hard-working, but because I applied when professional entry was relatively easy and affordable. And because I’m a lawyer, I enjoy higher social status, earning power, and political influence than most people. I’m part of the ultimate insider group, one that’s very good at keeping others on the outside, at climbing ladders to success and then pulling them up behind us.
But as a lawyer, I also believe in the rule of law, as a floor rather than as a ceiling. I believe in universal equal access to the complex but powerful machinery of justice. I believe in giving everyone a fair shot at the opportunities life brings and getting in the way of anyone who wants to prevent that. Those beliefs are integral to my personal value system. But they also come with the job. This is the great responsibility that balances the great power of this profession. You’re a lawyer? Then you do what’s right.
So if you match my demographic profile in whole or in part, and especially if you’re also a lawyer, then the burden of your obligation is correspondingly heavy, and the time to render your duty is right now. You can denounce the exclusionary crusade of our dominant tribe, or you can trail along behind it, collecting its rewards while ignoring its consequences.
What are you prepared to do about it?
In the face of judicial rejection and corporate abandonment of equity and inclusion efforts, you can choose to take seriously the deeply unfair demographic profile of law firms and to commit your firm more than ever to recruiting, developing, and elevating to positions of power members of both visible and invisible minorities, until your legal workforce finally resembles the community around you.
In the face of hopelessly narrowed avenues of entry to this profession for people from communities of colour and socio-economically disadvantaged groups, you can commit your firm and your lawyers to go out into the most marginalized parts of your cities and regions to proactively encourage and help finance pathways to the profession for young people who’ve learned not to dream of a legal career.
In the face of ugly hostility from strangers, and the more insidious chilling resentment of friends and colleagues, you can publicly declare that your law firm and your lawyers stand for justice and the rule of law, oppose discrimination and exclusion, advance fairness and equality without exceptions, and reject the hateful deprivation of constitutional and human rights, precisely because you’re lawyers.
In case last week’s SCOTUS rulings didn’t make it abundantly clear, a war against fundamental rights and human dignity is underway in our society, directed against the people and groups with the greatest vulnerability and the fewest allies. If you’re not defending the targets of this assault, then what are you doing? There are no neutral observers or casual spectators here. The rule of law doesn’t allow for just-this-once exceptions. Everyone is on this battlefield, one way or another.
The legal profession is directly implicated in this war. You have the opportunity and the obligation to make a difference. What are you prepared to do about it?
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