Thoughts on Diversity from a Straight White Man – Bret I. Parker

Bret I. Parker

Spring/Summer 2017 

Talking about diversity is tough, especially I think for lawyers. We are naturally careful creatures who avoid risks, and talking honestly and unfiltered runs the risk that we might “say the wrong thing.” However, I think the lack of candid, courageous conversations is one of the biggest obstacles to reducing bias, increasing inclusion, and leveraging diversity for our collective benefit.

And these discussions have to include straight white males like me who care about this topic. While I am concerned that the legal profession continues to struggle in this area, for me there are also personal reasons that diversity remains a priority.

I’ve always had empathy for people treated unfairly, and have always rooted for the underdog. Some of this may stem from being Jewish, which in other parts of the world and even the country comes with much more stigma, persecution, or discrimi­nation than in the New York City where I was born and raised. More importantly, over ten years ago I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative neurological condition for which there is currently no cure. For the first five years of my diagnosis, I was hesitant to share this with anyone outside of my close circle of friends and family. I then “came out” about it by informing everyone via a very public article, so I understand firsthand the feeling of, or concern about, being treated as “different.”

I also believe that it’s simply more interesting to work, and socialize, with all different kinds of people. Surrounding yourself with people who think the same as you and have the same life experiences can doom you to a limited, “groupthink” dynamic. The mixture of varying backgrounds and perspectives on a team brings better results by ensuring that a variety of innovative views are brought to bear on an issue, problem, or project.

Whatever the reasons, I try to make sure diversity is a core value and priority at the New York City Bar Association. My leader­ship team is mostly female and we’ve added and promoted a number of women of color (an area of challenge in our profes­sion) since I joined four years ago. Of the new committee chairs that were just appointed, approximately 25% are from ethnic minorities, identify as LGBTQ, or are disabled. And our Executive Committee is even more diverse. With 22 members, it’s almost evenly split among male-female; and approximately 45% are from historically under-represented groups.

This incredible diversity stands in stark contrast to the oil-paint­ed portraits of our former presidents that line the walls of the second floor and largely consist of white men (not to diminish the incredible contributions they have made to the Association and the profession). I am committed to ensuring that the build­ing reflects the diversity of our membership, from the photo­graphs of the current Executive Committee members in the City Bar’s entranceway to dedicating one of our conference rooms to the memory of Judge Judith Kaye.

Here are a few concrete steps that I try to follow in my own small way to enhance the diversity of people in my life:

1. At any gathering of lawyers I attend, I make a point to introduce myself to and talk with someone who doesn’t look like me. I am a proud member of affinity bar associations, attend meetings of these groups, donate to them, and have volunteered to serve as a mentor with two of them.

2. In hiring, retaining, and promoting staff, make sure that you have considered a wide variety of backgrounds and take some proactive steps to ensure that the pool of talent is diverse. I have broadened the group of applicants for staff positions by actively sharing news of vacancies through the various diversity bar associations and other resources.

3. Think broadly about what qualifications, credentials, and criteria are important to you. Maybe that one applicant didn’t go to an Ivy League school because she is the first in her family to go to college and chose the school with the best financial aid package. If you feel you’re missing a particular group, err on the side of seeing that one extra person whom you’re on the fence about interviewing.

4. In City Bar meetings, I make a point to encourage everyone in the room to contribute and speak. I take a lot of pride in acknowledging the contributions of all members of my team, keeping an open mind, and taking their feedback into consider­ation. Empowering my staff and valuing their contributions are crucial steps to combating attrition.

5. And finally, my personal and professional lives are inter­twined. If your friends are all from the same background as you, it is likely that the people in your professional world are, too. Look at your Facebook friends and connections on LinkedIn and see if your network reflects a wide variety of backgrounds. If not, it’s a reminder that there’s work to do.

I know that we are a stronger bar association by learning from your experiences. I would love to hear your ideas for increasing diversity in your work or personal life. You can email me here.