I saw this image on Instagram and thought it was a good visual for how we need to be in order to create change in the legal field. We have to abide by the standards and customs to be admitted, but then once we’re in we have to do our best to become agents of change—big and small.
I talk a lot about work culture, following cues, and finding ways to fit into work so that you can advance in your career. I do this knowing that there are some people ready to go in and create change by pointing out all the internal injustices that are wrong with our profession. So this encouragement–to go with the flow and to essentially submit to the status quo–can rub people the wrong way. Audre Lorde has said that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. And some believe that you can’t join the ranks of the powerful by abiding by their customs and still create change. It’s very Animal Farm. I understand that perspective, because once you join and are accepted, it’s hard to push back and call out bad behavior. It seems that as a person of color, once you’ve “made it” you either start to excuse racist behavior or you secretly hate your job and leave as soon as it’s an option.
But there is a third option. With all respects to Audre Lorde, I do think you can dismantle from within. First, what do I mean by dismantle? I mean that by being part of a justice system that is often imbalanced there are actions we can take to bring equity back to our communities. It means upending the current power structure and spreading some of that privilege to other groups. I see cases like Judge Stevens who dismissed an all- white jury because it went against our legal precepts. Or when a states attorney drops charges because they understand the racial bias that was used to charge a person; or the in-house counsel who demands more diversity from the law firms they use; or the government attorney that advocates for better policies that alleviate the added burdens of care-taking placed on mothers–all these things are fought for and won from the inside. And while fighting against the status quo does come with risks– real justice requires courage.
And to me that means courage to take a stand against things that are wrong and also becoming savvy enough to be diplomatic even when all you may want to do is scream. That may seem odd to people who are ready to go in to do battle, but the reality is that I could sit here and point out all the problems and rant about the injustices—and that’s actually a necessary part of changing the power structure—but if I also don’t point to real solutions then what’s the point? Real solutions, to me, mean increasing the amount of Latinas in the law because that will change the power structure.
And before we can get to a place where we can demand & fight for change, we have to play the game to earn political capital at work*. Again, I know some would love to go in and call everything and everyone out for poor behavior. But realistically, we come from a position of disadvantage. Railing against the machine, without any type of ability to actually change it, isn’t going to do much. Example time: my law school friend’s dream job was to be a criminal defense attorney. One day when she was in the office she and heard some older attorneys talking and one kept referring to someone in the story (not present) as a dyke. It was a constant barrage of that word. That wasn’t ok with my friend, but she knew that if she complained either directly to the attorneys or to HR would result in her being seen as not being “strong” enough to put up with the work so she didn’t say anything.
So by that point, she had assessed the place enough to know that those in charge wanted people that we’re willing to take abusive language & would label anyone who went against the grain as weak. So she bit her tongue and waited. Once she started working with them as a full-time attorney, she had earned more power–enough to be able to call out coworkers about their language because now she was on a similar level & could create change within the system. She wouldn’t have been able to do that if she hadn’t at least understood the rules of the game and played by them.
Look, I know there are some who will always be Ice Cube from NWA. That is a really awesome power and knowledge of self to know that you’re always able to take a stand no matter the consequences. But not everyone has the ability to risk their profession and livelihood. However, you can take solace in the fact that you may be putting up with shit now, but once you’re established in your career you will have amazing tools and power to destroy and rebuild at your disposal.
*Now, do I think this is at all fair? No. Why is the onus always on us to make things right? That is a post for another day.