Diversity. Inclusion. These terms have become “buzzwords” that we often hear in common parlance. At first blush, they appear benevolent, hopeful, good-natured, and, dare I say, heartwarming. Well, if you ask me, those are the reactions these words used to invoke. Nowadays, if I am being honest, when I am presented with Diversity and Inclusion (or “D &I”), especially within the context of an organization not particularly lauded for advancements in this space, my initial reaction is a bit of skepticism. Those who know me well will quickly tell you that I am far from cynical and highly optimistic at my core. So my reaction is not rooted in a general disbelief that people and their respective institutions are incapable or unwilling to meaningfully implement D&I initiatives. Rather, my visceral response and immediate eyebrow raise is based on the fact that, in many cases, “we’ve heard this all before.”
To that end, during the ABA Midyear Meeting in Austin, Texas, one particular program stood out among the rest to candidly tackle the “walk the talk” concept unlike any other I have experienced before. At Midyear, the ABA Young Lawyers Division routinely holds its Diversity Dialogue Breakfast. This year, the program was entitled “Moving Beyond Lip Service: A Conversation with Don Prophete”; the event took the form of a fireside chat. This experience cultivated a transparent, no holds barred conversation with Don, whom I have the pleasure of calling a mentor and friend, regarding diversity and inclusion efforts within the legal profession. I also had the distinct honor of moderating the dialogue.
Our chat focused on the importance of the legal industry’s commitment to genuine diversity and inclusion efforts. The endeavor was for attendees to gain an insider’s perspective on various topics, such as: maintaining a grit mindset, advocating for sincere accountability in the diversity and inclusion realm, the importance of allyship, and how the failure to be an ally can leave persons of color out in the cold and perpetuate the already staggering rates of attrition within our legal profession. But this conversation largely centered on insights from Don. So, who is he? And why does it matter?
To call Don Prophete an industry leader, it would be a gross understatement. He is a trial lawyer and partner at Constangy, Brooks, Smith, and Prophete LLP based in Kansas City, Mo., who excels at representing large clients in complex and multi-plaintiff race employment discrimination cases. If you stop there, it sounds like hundreds of lawyer bios you have perused before. Don has another tremendous accomplishment of note - when he joined his firm, he became the first (and still the only) black name partner at an Am Law 250 firm. Let that one sink in for a moment. Here, in 2020, to our knowledge, there is still in history only one such individual to have their name on the masthead of a firm in this category. Further, in 2019, Prophete penned an open letter, responding to the legal profession, calling for an end to empty notions and challenging the profession to put action to words. Needless to say, he was well qualified to receive our attention for the hour.
Unsurprisingly, gauging his monumental milestones to date, Don has quite the reputation for speaking his mind. And that he did. Throughout the discourse, he peppered in real life examples, powerful anecdotes and a few lighthearted quips to add some levity to an otherwise heavy subject. To be clear, our chat did not focus on shaming those who were not living up the bar of true D&I (or standards they have set for their own organizations). Instead, we geared the conversation to first shine light on the stark realities that still exist in the profession. Once we all agree that, proportionally, things have not dramatically changed over the last several decades in the legal field, then we can talk about what we are and are not doing.
For starters, and to the original position of this piece, we have to stop talking and start executing. Almost every group of considerable magnitude has a diversity mission statement or somewhere in their bylaws, practices, etc. guidelines about how to be more inclusive. We have the data. We have the initiatives and plans. And, of course, we have the flowery words and manifestos. In 2020, as Don shared with us, the only way we move the needle forward is to cease the babbling and take action. As you might expect, Don lives up to this model of execution in a big way. The personal team of attorneys (some 30+ lawyers) that he brought to his firm and “feeds” with his work is comprised of individuals who are racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse. He regularly refers to his crew, and others similarly situated, as “Brilliant Brown Lawyers.”
So what does all of this mean for us? Well, following in Don’s footsteps is certainly ambitious. However, what I will recommend is that each of us look in the mirror first and then at the organizations we call home second, and ask ourselves: “Do I walk the talk? Does my workplace move beyond lip service?” If the answers are yes, then great. Keep going. If the answers are no, then stop talking, start listening, and take the first step.