Diversity, equity, and inclusion should be central to your law firm’s mission, but how do you go about building a welcoming workplace? John G. Browning gives tips from his session at the State Bar of Texas’ Annual Meeting on effective DEI solutions for law firms. He discusses historical challenges surrounding this issue and the education, training, and resources available to help your firm become a welcoming place for all.
John G. Browning is a partner at Spencer Fane and a former Justice on Texas’ Fifth District Court of Appeals in Dallas.
Special thanks to our
Intro: You welcome to the State Bar of Texas Podcast, your monthly source for conversations and curated content to improve your law practice with your host, Rocky Dhir.
Laurence Colletti: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the State Bar of Texas Podcast, recording live from the Bar’s Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas, just a stone’s throw from Lady Bird Lake, aka the Colorado River. It’s a river, I know they say it’s a lake, but it is a river, but that’s okay. Anyway, joining me now, we have a wonderful guest, but I should probably introduce myself. Obviously, as you can tell, I am not Rocky Dhir your regular host, but I did stay at a holiday ends. No, I did not. But we’re going to do it anyway. I’m going to be stepping in just for the morning while he’s gone on conference business. But fortunately, today we have a wonderful guest, John Browning, joining us fresh off a presentation Blueprint for Building Sustainable, Systematic Solutions for an Effective DEI Workplace. John, I have so many questions for you, but welcome to the show.
John G. Browning: Thank you very much. Happy to be here.
Laurence Colletti: Excellent. So you’ve had a really interesting career as I got to know you a little bit in the pregame, so why don’t we start with that as our opening question here. Where do work, what do you do and tell us a little bit about your time on the bench as well.
John G. Browning: Sure. Well, I’m a partner at the Law Firm of Spencer Fane, it’s a Midwestern based national law firm. I’m a partner in their Plano, Texas office. Great to be back in Austin because I’m a UT law graduate, so it’s always great to be back in Austin. And prior to resuming my life in private practice, which I’ve done that for about 34 years, I was on the bench on the Fifth District Court of Appeals in Dallas, one of Texas’ Intermediate Appellate Courts and loved doing that. And after I left the bench in early 2021, it was back to work, but I thought I really like teaching and I’d been an adjunct professor at SMU. I think maybe I’d like to do this on a more full-time basis and I became a full time law professor and so I am a distinguished Jurist in Residence is what they tell me I am and I teach full time, I practice full time and I do a lot of writing and speaking, so that’s three full time jobs and that’s not really a great way to retire, but that’s a subject for my wife and I to discuss.
Laurence Colletti: Yes, and I think you have a penchant for history as well.
John G. Browning: Yes, I serve as a trustee and I’m the editor in chief of the Texas Supreme Court Historical Society’s Journal and we do a lot of work in the area of legal history and one of my personal passions is black legal history which I’ve done a lot of writing and speaking about as well.
Laurence Colletti: All right. Well, let’s get to our topic to shorty (ph) Blueprint for Building Sustainable, Systematic Solutions for an Effective DEI Workplace. And so, let’s start with just kind of a basic question. In terms of the DEI, which is obviously short for Diversity Equity, Inclusion Workplace. Let’s define, let’s put some parameters around it, what attributes are we looking for there? What are the final goals with that?
John G. Browning: Sure. Well, diversity obviously is self-explanatory. We don’t want to practice in a profession where everyone looks and sounds the same, right? We want our profession to mirror the society that we serve as attorneys. Equity, obviously we believe in providing greater equality of opportunity to the lawyers who are going to practice here. And in terms of inclusiveness or inclusion, I tend to identify that with belonging, this is not just a matter of let’s bring someone on board because of identity politics. We need to have X number of attorneys of this demographic or that demographic. Let’s really bring them on and foster a sense of true belonging.
Laurence Colletti: Yeah, that last part, that’s a really great segue into my next question. It’s beyond just the hiring process. It’s about the culture at your firm or business. It’s the place everybody gathers in a country like the United States, where everybody can come from such diverse backgrounds, that can often be a challenge to have an environment that’s welcoming to everybody. So let’s talk about that part. So get beyond the hiring part, what can law firms do to make sure that their offices are welcoming to everybody?
John G. Browning: Sure. Well, part of it is what law firms are already doing to a significant extent, 65% of the top law firms in the country have diversity committees of some type or another, 85% of them have written diversity and inclusiveness policies or plans. But we’re still stuck in a profession where according to the latest ABA statistics, about 81% of all lawyers are white. We’ve only got about 5.5% to 5.6% black attorneys, about 5.8% Latino and Latina.
And about 5.8% are Asian American. So just one half of 1% are Native American. As a member of the Native American National Bar Association, I find that kind of deplorable. In fact, despite all these efforts and they’ve been ongoing for quite some time between 2011 and 2021, the number of the percentage of black lawyers in our profession actually declined.
Laurence Colletti: That’s interesting.
John G. Browning: It’s never been huge, but despite all these efforts, still declined. And so, one of the things that I’ve talked about and identified is that we need to do more than just pay lip service to the idea of DEI. We need to implement actual action.
Laurence Colletti: I’m going to ask you about that as we close things out, but that’s a really interesting point that you made right there. Just so the underrepresentation, of course, in the United States, one of the things we pride ourselves on is representation. And so, when you do have parts of the population that are underrepresented, we’re not getting the full voice of the country involved in our lawmaking, but also that process that gives it its legitimacy. There’s that thin line that you have, we’re going to follow this law and we don’t want to follow that law. And that comes down to in my opinion consent and consents based on how reasonable those laws are.
And if you don’t have everybody playing a part in how those laws are first of all written but also as they’re implemented and enforced, you’re just going to have less and less enthusiastic or less and less enthusiasm with following the law. I think it’s a tenuous place you can find yourself in how thin that line is, but let’s talk about the pitfalls, the pitfalls for this. So obviously it can be challenged to have an environment that’s everything for everyone. There are conflicting opinions out there and not everybody wants to do things the same way. So what are some of the challenges and pitfalls that organizations and law firms should avoid when trying to make their workplaces more inclusive?
John G. Browning: Well, one of the things I think they definitely need to avoid is the idea of tokenization. Just engaging in identity for identity sake. You are our black lawyer. You are our Asian lawyer on this committee or this practice group or what have you. We need to, I think, take active steps in informing and educating and true action and that really hearkens back to building this pipeline and fostering this pipeline into our profession. There’s a lot of things that can be done including mentorship opportunities for diverse attorneys who are within your firm, that’s a great form of action. Accountability, making sure that leadership of the firm is playing an active role in your DEI efforts and is aware of these. All of those are great, but it starts so much earlier and it starts long before anyone ever gets to a law firm and that really begins in our schools, educating. When Malcolm X was a young man in school, grammar school, he was asked by a teacher, what do you want to be when you grow up? And he said, “well, I think I’d like to be a lawyer.” And the teacher at that time was saying, “oh, well, that’s not realistic. That’s not a realistic goal for someone like you. You should focus on vocational or trade schools.” And we need to stop giving messages like that to young people of color.
We need to tell them that, yes, this is a realistic goal. This is a viable career option for you. Part of this educating them on the fact that, yes, Americans of color have played an important role in the legal profession dating back well into the 19th Century, but we also need true action and that is helping young, diverse people overcome obstacles whether that’s the lack of financial resources, right? We need scholarships, we need those opportunities. Lack of academic resources, providing the readiness, the academic readiness that they’re going to need that mentorship. The Dallas Bar Association, for example, has a wonderful program that I was privileged to be a part of for years and that was the law in the school program where lawyers would go into the schools. Sometimes we’d teach a social studies class about constitutional rights or some topic that dovetailed into what they were learning. Sometimes we would just talk to them about the career track to becoming a lawyer, letting them know what’s involved. What are you going to need? Telling some of these children, some of them were at risk for becoming dropouts, that you can aspire to something more. And some law firms have adopted classes and law schools. Of course, many of them provide internship opportunities long before there’s even a law student.
But providing opportunities for high school students, for college students, this type of action is meaningful and we need more of it.
Laurence Colletti: Well, particularly I like what you said there, as opposed to focusing on the what somebody might be in terms of their ethnic or cultural background. Focus on the who. This person is a member of our team. They have a family and a past, and they have goals and ambitions as well. And so, I like that particular emphasis of that is organizations. Obviously, they want to focus on the numbers like we feel like our firm underrepresents people in this demographic versus that one. But don’t just focus on the what? Focus on the who?
John G. Browning: Exactly.
Laurence Colletti: All right. Well, last question for you, getting started there’s a lot of good-hearted firms out there that want to do more to make sure that they have they’re implementing DEI initiatives successfully. And so, just in terms of resources, where do you recommend, they turn first to make sure it’s done right and they focus on the things that matter and the things that are going to, I guess, ensure that they get the results that they’re setting out to get.
John G. Browning: Sure, there are some wonderful resources that are maintained by the National Association for Law Placement and they do more than just maintain statistics. I’ve relied on their statistics and it’s certainly very helpful for someone like me, but they’re also a wonderful clearinghouse and resource for these types of efforts that we’re talking about Minority Bar Associations. When you want to know, hey, what can we do that would be meaningful, what can we do to help? They’re going to be a wonderful conduit through which these efforts can flow and they can co-sponsor these sorts of things, whether that’s a back-to-school drive for a local school that happens to be an inner-city school or whether that is providing scholarship programs and scholarship assistance. That’s a wonderful program.
Laurence Colletti: Excellent. Well, it looks like we’ve reached the end of our program for today, but I want to thank our guest, John Browning for joining us today. Thank you so much for joining us, sir.
John G. Browning: My pleasure, thank you.
Laurence Colletti: And if our listeners, they have questions, want to learn more, maybe want to attend one of your classes, where can they find you?
John G. Browning: They can email me [email protected], you can also email me at my law firm address, but you may wind up getting mixed up with a whole lot of court cases and emails on that. And that’s [email protected].
Laurence Colletti: And before we close out, I also want to thank our listeners for tuning in. Thank you so much, because without you, there’s no show and that’s no fun. And if you like what you heard, please rate and review us in Apple Podcast, Google Podcast, Amazon Music or best yet, the place where you get your podcast, your favorite. Until next time, I’m Laurence Colletti, thank you for listening.