It is a pleasure to include Robert White as a Lawyer Whisperer Q&A guest! Robert is the Executive Director at the California Minority Counsel Program (CMCP), an amazing organization dedicated to promoting diversity in the legal profession. CMCP is the only state-wide organization that brings business lawyers of all races together for the purpose of achieving diversity within law firms and in-house legal departments. A noble cause indeed!
Robert has been a powerhouse for change and equality as a leader in CMCP for nearly 5+ years. He is an attorney and spent over 15 years practicing law at Jackson Tufts and in house at Wells Fargo. But as his career journey progressed, he discovered that his heart lay outside the practice of law. Robert transitioned to the corporate and career development world honing his skills as change-agent and has not looked back. Prior to his current role with CMCP, he served as the Director of Alumni Career Services at UC Berkeley School of Law.
Robert earned his BA magna cum laude from Morehouse College and went on to earn a second degree in English with African & Caribbean Studies (with honours) from the University of Kent. Next up was a Master’s degree in Industrial and Organization Psychology from Golden Gate University School of Business. He completed his impressive education journey with a law degree from Stanford Law School.
I am grateful for Robert’s time as he provided The Lawyer Whisperer with his insights during these unprecedented times. Thank you Robert!
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, what is your advice to the business community and its leaders on how they can approach diversity and inclusion to effect real and positive change for people of color?
Effective change is systemic and disruptive and altruistic. It can’t be layered on top of existing systems, cultures and practices without changing those structures. It has to include specific goals and design elements to help people of color and it has to have an aim of helping that whole community, above and beyond the positive PR it generates for the firm or company.
In concrete terms, I appreciate organizations which have organized sessions for their leaders to listen and learn. I respect leaders who acknowledge that they didn’t do all they could have to support diversity in the past and that they may be out of their element tackling issues of racial equity and inclusion, but want to learn.
Some hard questions that leaders and organizations should ask themselves include:
- Are you willing to change relationships and management structures in order to create opportunities for people who have historically been excluded?
- When assessing where to invest funding and effort – in addition to data are you taking in and sharing the stories of people of color which may be far more powerful than numbers?
- When you make commitments about increasing the numbers of people of color in the organization, are you taking a hard look at why people of color have left or chosen not to apply with you? Are your hiring goals based on reflecting the diversity of the community or your customer base, or on being “at market,” i.e. no worse than your competitors?
- Will the initiatives you are launching help the community or people of color even if your organization doesn’t immediately get the lion’s share of the publicity or the benefit of more diverse hires?
Leaders need to drive themselves and their teams and organizations on DEI as rigorously as they do on business efficiency and profitability. This means not only the statements about diversity and the standard efforts to recruit from diverse pools, collect data on diversity, and implement implicit bias training, et cetera, but engaging in continual self-examination and transparency about their actions and their impact.
Effective change comes when leaders don’t allow themselves to be content with actions which do some good but have a performative element, including the standard responses to the call for racial equity: call in a race expert and/or motivational speaker, give money, make speeches, form a high-profile committee, or launch a high-profile initiative, collect data without a plan on how to use it.
How can legal professional increase his/her/their value to their organization during these challenging times?
Be indispensable. Be the person who can be counted on to volunteer first and to take ownership of a project or problem. Take whatever free space you have in your busy life and try to anticipate where the next challenge will come from and be ready to offer options for managing it. Often leaders are maxed out just dealing with the current crises – someone who can be counted on to look ahead is invaluable.
Be painfully honest about what you or the organization can realistically do or expect in these times. That doesn’t mean being negative, it means establishing credibility so that when you identify opportunities and positive developments others can believe in you.
You practiced law for several years before transitioning to a more strategic and business-focused role. What inspired you to make that transition? Was it difficult to do?
I got tired of hearing myself complaining to my friends about being unfulfilled as a lawyer. I would set a goal on how much money I needed to have saved up, and then move the goal when I got close so I wouldn’t have to actually do anything. Eventually I realized I needed to just jump and trust myself to make it all work out.
Reinvention was hard, hard to continually face questions about what I was going to do, hard to accept not always being clear about what I was trying to do, hard to take a step backwards in compensation and hard to become a beginner in a new field (corporate training, then consulting and career counseling, now managing a nonprofit and working as a diversity professional. It was also hard as a minority and first generation professional to walk away from the financial rewards and status of being a lawyer – becoming a lawyer meant a huge deal to me and to my family and community and I had to do a lot of internal work freeing myself from those expectations. In the end though, the lessons I learned were transformational – things are not always easy in this career, but I am so happy I didn’t just sit still.
How do you think the pandemic will affect the legal profession?
The economic impact is already being felt by many organizations, law firms more than legal departments are going through staff reductions and furloughs. It is accelerating changes already underway in use of technology and blurring of lines between personal and work spaces. It will be really interesting whenever offices reopen – I think there will be a ix of elation at having real human contact and questioning about whether attorneys really want to go back to their old work habits and environments. The pressure for efficiency and profit will continue, and organizations will keep new practices that they can see are more efficient than their old ways of doing business.
What have you learned about yourself during this pandemic?
Like most of us, I miss the kind of social interactions we had, and it hasn’t always been easy to adapt to isolation and being indoors so much. I’ve had to be more intentional about self-care, getting in exercise and quiet time, stepping away from the work computer, having purely social conversations. I feel a big loss in not being able to travel to completely new places, but at the same time looking at my screensaver of photos of places I’ve already been makes me feel very grateful for those experiences.