Diversity — It’s What Makes the Heart Beat

Rhoades Mckee, like many businesses, has worked over the years to promote diversity within its organization. Earlier this year, we joined the managing partners of 11 other West Michigan law firms in a collaboration designed to accelerate the creation of a more diverse bar and to cement the gains achieved over the years. Anyone sitting in on the meetings would be left with no doubt about the conviction of those involved that diversity is important and that they are willing to spend considerable time and resources to achieve it. In a bit of ironic timing, our meetings this spring coincided with a visit to town by columnist Ann Coulter, who has been quoted as saying, “Never in recorded history has diversity been anything but a problem” and “Diversity is a difficulty to be overcome, not an advantage to be sought.” Based on the reporting that followed Coulter’s visit to Grand Rapids and other cities in the Midwest, it was clear that many share her thoughts.

While it was tempting to summarily dismiss Coulter’s statements as little more than red meat thrown to the far right, the stark contrast between her position and the heartfelt conviction of those in the collaborative that diversity is not only desirable but necessary, caused me to step back and consider the issue anew. Have we heard that diversity is important so many times that we simply accept it as gospel? Are we pursuing diversity simply because it is a politically correct feel-good activity that gets positive ink? Because other businesses are doing it and we don’t want to appear to be unenlightened? Or, instead, does our pursuit of diversity have a solid foundation and a proper motivation?

To answer these questions, I spent a good deal of time reviewing the thoughts of people who have spent lots of time wrestling with the foundational question of why diversity matters to the legal profession. The State Bar of Michigan’s Diversity and Inclusion Pledge summarizes the issue very well:

“Diversity creates greater trust and confidence in the administration of justice and the rule of law, and enables us to better serve our clients and society. It makes us more effective and creative by bringing different perspectives, experiences, backgrounds, talents, and interests to the practice of law.”

This statement resonates with me and rings true. As lawyers our job is to represent our clients with all the skill that we can bring to each situation. If our toolkit of skills includes only hammers, every client problem looks like a nail. While many problems can be solved by driving the nail, what happens when you need a different result? By broadening our toolkit with diverse perspectives and experiences we can achieve the different results that clients both need and deserve.

Diversity matters for another reason: it assists in instilling trust and confidence in the legal system by making sure that many voices are heard and represented. With diversity, clients have the opportunity for someone who has walked in their shoes and understands their unique issues to provide assistance rather than a majority lawyer who may be skilled and empathic to their plight but ultimately clueless regarding cultural or social issues that may be just as important as the outcome of the plea bargain or civil proceeding.

While these observations are based on how diversity is important to the legal process, they are universal to any employment setting. Differing perspectives add value to any work team and clients of whatever product you have to sell or service you have to render may need more than a traditional one-size-fits-all approach that often comes from organizations staffed by those who are virtually interchangeable in their backgrounds and experiences.

Cynics might point out that there is an economic motivation behind the diversity initiatives and to some degree they are right. Better client service virtually always helps the bottom line. With better client service as a foundation I have no doubt that our pursuit of diversity rests on solid ground and isn’t just window dressing. But that conclusion isn’t the end of the issue for me. Diversity is important for reasons completely unrelated to client service or economics. Diversity enriches our days. As noted in the State Bar Pledge: “Diversity is inclusive. It encompasses, among other things, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, religion, nationality, language, age, disability, marital and parental status, geographic origin, and socioeconomic background.” In other words, diversity is all the colors of the rainbow, all the great music of the world and every wonderful smell, taste and texture we’ve ever encountered. It’s what makes our hearts beat. The give and take between differing viewpoints, goals, ideas, attitudes and other characteristics that occurs when diverse individuals work together can open our eyes to a world much larger than the one we’ve inhabited most of our lives. Like going from 2D to 3D the experience can be exhilarating and is almost always rewarding, if sometimes unsettling. Business can be grueling and, in these days, cutthroat. We owe it to ourselves to seek the rich personal rewards that follow from diversity.

Mark Smith is an attorney at law firm Rhoades McKee in Grand Rapids, Mich. Serving regional and nationwide businesses for 30 years, Smith assists clients with preventative legal matters as well as resolving complex litigation issues. Rhoades McKee was one of West Michigan’s 101 Best & Brightest Companies to Work For in 2011. Smith can be reached at www.rhoadesmckee.com.