In law school and as they enter the legal profession, law students need to have the ability to understand and appropriately interact with diverse groups. In this episode of the ABA Law Student Podcast, host Ashley Baker talks to Kennedy LeJeune, Miosotti Tenecora, and De’Jonique Carter about the importance of developing cultural competency as a law student. They discuss the need for more training for all legal professionals and offer their strategies for overcoming personal bias and developing respect for diverse cultures and world views.
ABA Law Student Podcast
Cultural Competency – How to Handle Bias and Develop Understanding
Intro: Welcome to the official ABA Law Student Podcast, where we talk about issues that affect law students and recent grads. From finals and graduation to the Bar exam and finding a job, this show is your trusted resource for the next big step.
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Ashley N. Baker: Hello and welcome to another episode of the ABA Law Student Podcast. My name is Ashley Baker. I currently serve as the Law Student Division Delegate of Communications, Publications and Outreach. I am a 2L at Southern University Law Center.
At the beginning of the school year we published an article on the Before the Bar Blog entitled ‘5 Tips for Transgender Law Students’. The article received a positive response and sparked a larger conversation about cultural competency. So I have invited a panel of guests with different perspectives to talk about this issue and how it affects us as law students and how it may affect us as practicing attorneys.
Our first guest is Mr. Kennedy LeJeune, the author of ‘5 Tips for Transgender Law Students’. Kennedy is a 2L and ABA Representative-elect at Southern University Law Center. Kennedy is also an advocate for diversity and cultural competency.
Our next guest is Ms. De’Jonique Carter. De’Jonique is a licensed social worker with extensive knowledge of issues that affect minorities. She is also a 2L at Southern University Law Center.
And last, but certainly not least, is our Delegate of Diversity Miosotti Tenecora. Miosotti is a 3L at Boston University School of Law. She has been in public service for almost a decade, with a focus on gender-based violence and immigration issues. She was the Founder and President of the First-Generation Professionals at BU Law. Through this organization Miosotti has created awareness of the struggles of First Gen students and initiatives to recruit more diverse students to law schools and provide current diverse law students with more resources.
How are you all doing today?
Kennedy LeJeune: Good.
Miosotti Tenecora: Great. Thanks for asking Ashley.
Ashley N. Baker: Thanks for agreeing to do our podcast. This should be an interesting conversation. So let me start off, if you google the term cultural competency, a number of search results come up, primarily focusing on healthcare providers, relationships to their patients. Since you all come from different backgrounds, can you each tell us what cultural competency means to you and why it should be relevant to law students?
Miosotti, let’s start with you.
Miosotti Tenecora: Yes. So I think cultural competency to me is understanding or attempting to understand a person from a different culture, with that kind of understanding or attempt to understand a culturally competent person can effectively communicate with that person. I think it’s the ability to go outside your comfort zone on your perspectives and try to show others that you are not as narrow-minded in your world views. To me, a culture competent person is someone who is willing to brighten their views.
It’s definitely relevant to law students who are diverse, because if the student body or faculty at law schools don’t have the ability to effectively communicate with diverse students, then you run the very dangerous risks of alienating a segment of that student community and it kind of can really hinder that community from growing and having like positive synergies. So that’s what I think cultural competency is and really how it’s very relevant to the law school setting.
Ashley N. Baker: Kennedy, what do you think?
Kennedy LeJeune: I think Miosotti did a great job of summing that up and I think in my opinion, cultural competency is really the ability to interact with multiple groups of people in respect to their cultural, racial or ethnic background, as well as people of different gender identities and sexual orientations.
This also involves having an understanding of their experiences, even if they aren’t your own, and I think it’s relevant for law students especially now with the changing faces of the legal community, it’s becoming more diverse, provides for more experiences. And the ABA I think put out a report wherein it show that more women are attending law schools than men now.
I think it’s necessary, not only for students to have that cultural competency training for the changing diverse community, but also for professors. Just like what Miosotti said that it’s an important for them to have the ability to understand their students’ experiences, understand what world they are preparing them for.
And I think one of the pitfalls of not having this mandatory training is situations in which students aren’t able to eloquently communicate their experience and have respect of other people’s understandings.
Ashley N. Baker: Okay. De’Jonique, what do you think?
De’Jonique Carter: Wow, you guys did a great job of basically summing up what cultural competency means. There are few words that kind of jump out to me that both Kennedy and Miosotti mentioned; some of those words include differences, beliefs, value, knowledge, respect, communication. Having a basic knowledge of someone else’s cultural background, irrespective of gender, race, class, all these things contribute to what cultural competency means.
It’s the ability to provide services, whether it’s education, social, to aid and assist people who may have different beliefs and values than what we have, and being able to just demonstrate a respect for a person just the way they are. We all come from different backgrounds and beliefs than our peers, and if we work together, we can achieve a better space for the world, period.
Now, the second question is why should it be relevant to us students? I think it’s relevant to us because one, we are ultimately going to be the first group of people to — and I mean in our cohort, we are going to be the first group of people to like kind of get the first bit of what it means to be in the legal profession, and sometimes in those interactions we are not able to understand each other and it only continues to manifest itself in either a negative or a positive way when we get out into the actual post law school world.
I think it’s important for our professors to have cultural competency training, because not all professors are able to interact, respect — well, I won’t say all professors, but some professors may not be able to effectively communicate, educate, teach without some sort of cultural competency training and some of the pitfalls are just not being able to have a mandatory training, just the inability to reach someone who may not — who may fear coming to a professor. I think that kind of sums it up.
Ashley N. Baker: Okay, you guys make some excellent points. One thing that I will say is that it’s no secret that the legal profession has a diversity issue. I recently came across an article in the California Law Review entitled ‘Why Are There So Few Black Lawyers in Corporate Law Firms?’ Here is a brief quote from the article, “Available data indicates that these corporate firms hire few blacks, and that those that they do hire are more likely than their white peers to leave the firms before becoming partners.”
So I want to pose this question to you De’Jonique, do you think a lack of cultural competency is a contributing factor there?
De’Jonique Carter: Absolutely. I won’t say it’s the sole factor, because there are various things that keep people from going into firms or staying in firms. I mean we talk about the time, commitment, the stress, the want or desire to have a family, the area of law that they try to practice, student loans, it all plays a critical role, but I think that one of the most important factors is cultural competency, it’s culturally effective, because if there is a lag, there is an inability to relate to your peers, your colleagues, the people who you are working with.
For example, I remember being educated about my hair when I first started to kind of look for internships, and when I say educated about my hair, although some may not look at it as part of your cultural identity when you are a natural, which means that your hair is basically growing out of your head the way it was intended to, without any chemicals, so I remember being educated. I thought that I had to change or conceal the part of my identity just so that I could be accepted by some of the firms that I was interviewing with, and I don’t think this is the way to go, because if I can’t present my authentic self as a person of color, you will never be able to get me — get who I truly am. You understand what I am saying?
Ashley N. Baker: I do.
De’Jonique Carter: Having to conceal who I was, was very — it was sad, because it did not allow me to present my authentic self to anyone who I was interacting with because I was so fearful that I was going to be judged on something like my hair, you know what I mean?
Ashley N. Baker: Yeah.
De’Jonique Carter: I do think that it is a contributing factor and I know that that’s just a small example of why there aren’t black lawyers in the firms, but there are other situations where it may not be your hair. I remember listening to another young lady, she talks about her food, and she was saying that she loved cabbage and her cabbage didn’t smell like her peers, and it’s something to be conscious of. And if we are living in a space or working in a space where we have to constantly be conscious and we are not comfortable, they are very — you spend a lot of time with your coworkers, you want to be comfortable and presenting your authentic self, and I think that’s one of the reasons why there is lack in corporate law firms.
Ashley N. Baker: Exactly. I agree with everything that you said. You want to be in an environment where you are comfortable and being uncomfortable in any situation, that can affect your work ethic, your morale, many different areas.
So I want to turn to a different aspect of the conversation. In preparation for today’s episode I did a lot of research and I came across another article that’s entitled ‘Getting Real: Transgender Attorneys Talk About Coming Out in the Workplace’. One thing that struck me about this article was when the author talked about how, and I am quoting here, “The T in LGBT is the least understood, and while gay and lesbian attorneys may ponder how out they should be while interviewing and working at a firm, the question for a transgender attorney is whether they should be out at all.”
So Kennedy, in your article, ‘5 Tips for Transgender Law Students’, you advocate for transgender students to let people know their pronouns and to come out while they are in law school. My question to you is, why do you feel that coming out in law school should be the norm?
Kennedy LeJeune: Well, first I would like to say that De’Jonique made an important point that I think can transcend multiple groups of people and minorities, in that being your authentic self in the workplace is what’s most important, and having that workplace accommodate you as a person and a human being is very important. And so first I would like to make a note that being transgender is a bit more complex than coming out in regards to sexual orientation. There is no right way or one way to be transgender.
Some trans people may be farther along in their medical transition than others or some may choose not to medically transition at all, but the common denominators among these groups are pronoun preferences, possibly legally changing their name, identifying as a gender identity that is different than the one assigned at birth.
As someone who is medically transitioning in law school, I advocate for coming out in law school rather than later in the legal profession, because the law students are constantly networking and building connections. I would rather have somebody right now know upfront, hey, this is who I am and this is the preferred pronouns I would like to be addressed as, and know if that’s a connection that I want to further the relationship with.
Because law school is the practice ground for legal profession and taking those steps toward your gender identities, your pronouns, or other transitional steps, whether medical or not, can alleviate complications that may arise within the workplace further down the road, because unfortunately, workplace discrimination is a reality for a lot of people on the LGBTQ community, especially trans people, because it’s not necessarily a protected group.
And in the article you mentioned, some of the trans experiences that were documented, such as Kylar Broadus, mentioned that they were working in a firm and when they started their medical transition were removed from that firm. So I think in my experience, I personally would like to have upfront, because people are witnessing my transition that this is who I am, this is who I am going to be, and if you respect it, then that’s a working relationship that we can continue moving forward in.
Ashley N. Baker: Thank you for that, and I totally agree with you and all of your points on that.
Let’s turn to what the norm should be and the ABA Model Rules, specifically Model Rule 1.1 provides that a lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client. Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.
Now according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the United States is home to over 350 languages with over 13.3% of the population born outside of the United States. Client demographics are changing, especially for consumable practice areas like Family Law, Estate Planning, Criminal Law; so my question is, do you feel that law schools are preparing us for this reality and should there be required portion of CLE training devoted to cultural competency, and I’ll direct this question at you, Kennedy, because I think you mentioned a little bit of this in your last answer.
Kennedy LeJeune: So I think that in today’s world law schools are realizing that it’s more important than ever to prepare us for this reality. I think there is a lot of issues in social media, in the news, and on the public platform that have really spoken to the need for this. It’s already, like you mentioned, in areas where doctors deal with patients because they deal with the full human spectrum and it only makes sense that law schools should if they already haven’t put in place a cultural competency training so that we have the same experience as law students because we also deal with the entire human spectrum.
And I think it should be a required portion of CLE training because the world is constantly changing. Currently like you stated there are over 350 languages in the United States and who used to say that there won’t be more or there won’t be a larger variety of people who are immigrating to the United States, and so I think that because the culture is always changing, because the face of America is always changing, it only makes sense that law students and lawyers continue their legal education with regards to cultural competency.
Ashley N. Baker: Yeah, I definitely agree with you on that. Miosotti, what are your thoughts on that?
Miosotti Tenecora: I think, for the question do I feel that law school is preparing me, I mean, I have selected certain courses in clinics that have like a cultural competency training portion to it, but that’s only because I self-selected it. I think there’s a problem in law school where this is not mandatory and so you have other law students who don’t participate in these courses or clinics and they run the risk of not having this training and then certainly in the private sector, one might argue like you don’t really need this because your clients are sort of like, these type of clients and you won’t run a risk of like having a bias kind of effect the clients- attorney relationship, but in fact like we are all interconnected.
And I think it’s imperative especially with dealing in public interest, there is a reasonable expectation that private attorneys will do pro bono, so, I can’t think of any firm that’s not doing pro bono, like every year there is a list of the top ten law firms that do pro bono, it’s becoming more-and-more of a priority for law firm to do pro bono.
So, in terms of dealing with the public and the diversity that comes, that is with right now in our country I think we have to be like intellectually honest with ourselves and say that this should be mandatory at law schools because you’re going to run into someone who’s from a different culture. You have to kind of like balance your biases of what could possibly turn into a real risk of either damaging the client-attorney relationship or even further like just damaging sort of especially like, I am just thinking like in family law situation this could for a client that’s domestic violence survivor, if there are some biases from the frontend of the client-attorney relationship, this can cause emotional damage as well.
So there is real risk inherent in that and then I love that you brought up the model rules because the model rules definitely not only they are talking about competency and how you develop that competency is training, and so you have to have these kind of tools to know your biases and how to control them and you are not going to get that training, if you don’t seek out that training or if it’s not mandatory.
I think for most people they think they can control their biases but then when they’re confronted with a situation that they never experienced before then these biases come out in a way that it’s not sort of like they never experienced this so they don’t have a knowhow, how to attack it or how to like mediate that situation. So I think law schools have these programs but they’re not mandatory and so a lot of students don’t take advantage of it.
In terms of the required portion of the CLE, of course, I think it should be a require for all the reasons I just stated like I cited it’s 100% imperative in public interest cases and even then in the private side like I said before like we are all interconnected, we have international businesses, we don’t have corporations that are just solely operating here, that’s less and less the reality, so we have to understand other cultures and other world views other than our own.
Ashley N. Baker: I definitely agree with everything that you said. Mandatory cultural competency training should definitely be the goal both on the law school level as well as in the legal profession through CLEs and require trainings, but right now that is not our reality. So, Mio, what can we do on an individual level to affect this need for cultural competency? Like, what can I do, what can law students out there do to aid in this problem?
Miosotti Tenecora: I think, I mean, if the law school doesn’t have like clinics or some sort of cultural competency class that they can take, I think on a personal level you can start understanding your biases. You can start understanding maybe the lack of information that you have of a particular culture or a particular group. And I think being 100% intellectually honest with yourself and sitting down and saying, you know what, I don’t really know what the “T” means in LGBT, why don’t I just either do some research or talk to someone who is from the transgender community and try to understand?
And it goes back to like what I think of cultural competency, I think it’s the ability to go out and reach out to people to understand and to really attempt to do it, because it’s okay to be honest and say, you know what, I don’t understand really this group or this experience that this person is having, I think that’s fine, but I think you have to then go one extra step and say, you know what, since I don’t understand I’m going to go out and get the information that I need. So I can fully respect that person and sort of acknowledge their experiences.
So I think on a personal level you just have to be comfortable with yourself and say to yourself like I don’t have this information, and I know the risk of not having this information and I want to respect that other person sitting across from me, so I’m going to do my due diligence and sort of you get informed in any way possible.
And I think that should go with everyone not even in the legal profession this could be just as like human beings to understand another human being giving that respect, that level of respect to another human being. I think it’s crucial for the society in general and especially in a multicultural society that we have in the U.S., so I think those are ways that you can sort of compensate if your law school doesn’t have these sort of like cultural competency training program.
So I hope that was clear enough, but I honestly do think that you have to be like honest with yourself and know where your biases are because if you don’t do that then you’re just going to run a risk of either just not acknowledging those experiences or disrespecting a person and you really have to just not make an exhaustive list of all your biases but you have to be aware of them and the way you are aware of them it’s being intellectually honest with yourself, yeah.
Ashley N. Baker: Okay. De’Jonique, what do you think?
De’Jonique Carter: I think that Miosotti made great claims and it’s not a whole lot that actually other than I agree and only other thing that I would add is the communication and education portion to it, going out there and trying to obtain this information for yourself is one way of kind of understanding your biases, but I also believe that because there is no way of knowing what type of person that will walk through the door and what type of client 00:25:01 each day, as law school that information could be forwarded to it.
I have people come in and try to teach us these things we don’t know. I remember in my Baptist program had to go sit through a class to understand all the letters of LGBTQ getting an understanding that not everyone wants to go back, he or she, it might be even as each. So those things were things that I had no idea because my school offered it and gave me the opportunity to help me to understand a little bit better and in that education component of 00:25:36 having a conversation.
I noticed that in the law school we talk amongst ourselves. People generally will talk among themselves but what I am saying can never get through to someone who’s not like me if I never sit down and have those conversations if they are not required and I didn’t get a chance to answer the last question about the CLE, but I really do believe that cultural competency needs to be incorporated in some required law school class, and this is the very reason because we don’t know who is going to walk through.
Some people will not confront their own biases. People like myself, I have to be aware of my biases because I know that I want to eventually help people, help the world, but where the student or the law student who does not even know where to begin who only works with people who interact and thinking like that. That becomes a problem and instead of the solution.
So, sitting down and having these conversations not only with people but with our clients as general will really help to kind of make it normalized to the student, okay, it’s not such an unusual thing to see a transgender law student. It’s not unusual thing to be a Black woman who is a partner, it’s not unusual to see these things. So I think that’s the only two things that I would say.
Ashley N. Baker: I definitely agree and just as you were talking, I wrote a little note, how can you be an effective advocate without confronting your own biases because you were right, you don’t know who is going to walk through the door as a client.
Kennedy, I want to give you a chance to answer this question. What can we do on a personal level to aid in cultural competency or even cultural competency awareness?
Kennedy LeJeune: I think, this goes a long with what De’Jonique was saying that I guess the most direct way to kind of develop your own cultural competency without like a mandatory class or some sort of program is to really sit down and just have conversations with people. And I think that in my opinion is one of the most effective ways for me personally to communicate messages about my authentic self and to share experiences with other people.
And I 100% agree with everything Miosotti said about having those mandatory classes in law schools and I, myself as well as De’Jonique, I remember being an undergrad and having safe base training where I was informed of people the LGBTQ community, their different experiences that were separate to mine and kind of how to accommodate their needs within school and within the workplace.
And I think that to answer your question would be to just have a conversation communicate your needs, your desires and to listen to that other person no matter what your opinions or biases or prejudices might be because in the end in the workplace we kind of have to set aside those values and beliefs that you hold close to your heart.
Ashley N. Baker: Exactly, exactly. I want to thank you guys for coming on the Podcast. Kennedy, Miosotti, De’Jonique, I know that you guys have taken time out of your busy schedules because all law students are busy to bring some awareness to this important topic. I just want to say thank you again.
Kennedy LeJeune: Thanks for having us.
Miosotti Tenecora: Yeah, Thanks for having us. I truly enjoyed talking about this.
De’Jonique Carter: That was such a pleasure.
Ashley N. Baker: This was a great conversation. Well, we hope you enjoyed this episode of the Law Student Podcast. We would like to invite you to subscribe to the ABA Law Student Podcast on iTunes. You can reach us on Facebook at ABA for Law Students and follow us and all of our student leaders at #abaforlawstudents.
Signing off, I am Ashley Baker, thank you for listening and remember this quote by Ava Duvernay: “When we are talking about diversity, it’s not a box to check. It is a reality that should be deeply felt and held and valued by all of us.”
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