In this episode, I am excited to have Demetria Johnson on to talk about diversity and evolving the talent pool.
Demetria Johnson is a diversity professional with expertise in global and U.S. diversity and inclusion initiatives, women’s initiatives, and talent strategy. As a pioneer in the legal community, she has served in numerous leadership roles with notable legal organizations such as The Association of Law Firm Diversity Professionals, NALP, Leadership Council on Legal Diversity, and Washington Area Legal Administrators Association. She is a frequent speaker at conferences focused on women’s initiatives, mentoring, leadership, and professional development.
- How she found herself in this line of work, and how she attributes her success to her natural people skills. She also talks on what lens she has to look through when it comes to diversity and inclusion with law firms.
- What is diversity tax/tokenism within law firms, and how this can be seen as covert racism or doing the bare minimum to seem inclusive is insensitive. She also offers strategies or tools that diverse attorneys can do to “find their sea legs.”
- She touches on her perspective of the culture of diversity and inclusion, and how well-being and a sense of belonging stem from allowing others to speak without fear of shame or feeling like their voice matters less.
- What evolving the talent pool looks like, and how to start having that conversation in a larger scale to redefine one of the least racially diverse professions in the nation.
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Demetria Johnson: [00:00:00] In an environment where you are again trying to find your fit for lawyers of color, it’s much harder than it is for their non-diverse counterparts. Diversity is not only my vocation, it’s my avocation.
Intro: [00:00:19] Welcome to The Resilient Lawyer podcast. In this podcast, we have meaningful, in-depth conversations with lawyers, entrepreneurs, and change agents. We offer tools and strategies for creating a more joyful and satisfying life. And now your host, Jeena Cho.
Jeena Cho: [00:00:42] Hello my friends, thanks for being with me today. In this episode, I’m so happy to have Demetria Johnson. She is a diversity professional with expertise and global and U.S. diversity and inclusion initiatives, women’s initiatives, and talent strategy. As a pioneer in the legal community, she has served in many leadership roles with notable legal organizations such as The Association of Law Firm Diversity Professionals, NALP, Leadership Council on Legal Diversity, and Washington Area Legal Administrations Associations. She is a frequent speaker at conferences focused on women’s initiatives, mentoring leaderships, and professional development. Demetria, thank you so much for being with me today. I really appreciate you taking the time.
Demetria Johnson: [00:01:29] Jeena, thank you so much for having me. It’s an honor and a privilege to be able to share this podcast and share this space with you and your audience from The Resilient Lawyer, so thank you.
Jeena Cho: [00:01:43] Thank you. So maybe we can start by having you give us a 30-second introduction of who you are and what you do.
Demetria Johnson: [00:01:51] Sure. So as you said so eloquently in my bio, I am a diversity and talent strategist who has had the good fortune to share that space with global and U.S. expertise for several different law firms. So I find myself as a change agent, a thought leader, and an advocate for the members of the diversity arena and under-represented groups here and abroad.
Jeena Cho: [00:02:32] How did you come to do this work? What’s your background?
Demetria Johnson: [00:02:35] My background actually started in the customer service area many, many moons ago. And through that, people skills is something that I’ve always had such a knack for. From the early days of being a lifeguard to working in customer service for county government, and then going into the financial area. And while I was working for a bank, I had the opportunity to join a law firm. It’s now one of the Top AmLaw 100 Law Firms. And that experience, I started at the ground up. So I left the financial market to try something different, and because of my experience it seemed to work well with my personality and my background in customer service, and I jumped right in and had a knack for it. And I think it’s more of my personality as a type A person that I worked well with lawyers. So that’s how it evolved organically, and then through that I got more and more experience. And working with the lawyers that I work with, I found myself being engaged with the diversity market. So that’s how I became a diversity professional as well.
Jeena Cho: [00:04:13] Great. I always think it’s such huge shoes to fill, whenever you are the director of diversity and inclusion for a firm with hundreds and hundreds of different people who are all going to come to the table with different perspectives, different life experiences. So when you think about diversity and inclusion in the context of law firms, what’s the lens that you come to that role with?
Demetria Johnson: [00:04:47] As I said, I think most (well myself and my own opinion, for me and I would also say for a lot of my peers) come to it as a thought leader, an innovator, a change agent, and a champion; a champion in this mindset that champion that you’re fighting for, those people of under-represented groups, people who don’t have a voice. I say also, because at this time many of us are currently operating from a place of fear, and fear bringing our authentic self to work, in our personal life, fear seeking our full potential, and fear of the unknown. So I think that as we as diversity professionals are somewhat being known as again as those champions, or those who often at times are seen as the minority within the organizations that they’re working.
Jeena Cho: [00:05:59] Can you tell us a little bit about a diversity tax or tokenisms within law firms. I guess to start, what do you mean by diversity tax or tokenism?
Demetria Johnson: [00:06:13] Sure. So recently, I presented with a couple of my colleagues, one who’s in professional development and someone else who worked within law schools. And we did a presentation at the NALP Diversity Summit, and it was called “Don’t Ask me to be Your Poster Child.” And we came up with that because of the factor when you’re looking at, we put it as sort of a true poster. When you have diverse associates who will let us use their photos over and over again on the website and brochures or will meet every diverse recruiting candidate. They’ll also attend every diversity event, lead affinity groups, mentor other diverse lawyers, and be everything to everyone. So for example, the true definition as I say of tokenism is the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from under-represented groups.
So it’s otherwise known as covert racism, so it’s defined as ambiguous because the perpetrator’s actions are very indirect and often expressed through innuendos. And this was recently described by Haiku Hansen in a Huffington blog, and one of the other things that I’ve seen as it relates to what we see today (not only in law firms but also in the media) and Netflix I think does a good job of bringing to the forefront, biases in every day. Whether it’s in your workplace, in your neighborhoods, in your communities or wherever. But Netflix released an original series “Dear White People.” I don’t know if you’ve seen that, where it’s based on the acclaimed film of the same name. So this original series follows a group of students of color at Winchester University, and it’s a predominantly white Ivy League college. And the students are faced with the landscape of cultural bias, social injustice, and misguided activism. And they take this through a slippery politics and sort of through an absurdist lens.
[00:08:32] And the series’ irony and self-deprivation provide brutal honesty and humor to highlight these issues. So as I was watching the second season, and within the first episode of that second season they had a clip, it was in the first 45 seconds I think of the second season. In that first episode where they were gathering the new incoming class to take a photo, and as the photographer gathered everyone together he made sure that he put the minority students (which were one or two) and the one student who had a disability in the front, to showcase and make it seem as though this white Ivy League school was very inclusive of diversity and culturally sensitive to that.
However, as you went through that episode, later in the episode they showed where the white fraternity was hosting a blackface party. So it’s sort of two-fold and how we look at today’s post-racial society. Again, that’s how I talk about the work that I do. You know, I reflect often on a workshop that was a huge “aha moment” for me, and it was conducted by Steven Young, who’s a senior partner at InSight education systems and an author on micro-inequities and the power of small. And Steven provided the attendees at this workshop with the skills and techniques that could be used to improve the quality and productivity of daily interaction in the workplace and in law school environments. And in turn, it measurably raised diversity performance. So the workshop focused on the importance of analyzing the impact of underlying messages, which were showcased in this Netflix series, as well as through diversity tax at firms.
[00:10:42] So some of this is called micro-messaging, as a part of any diversity inclusion initiative. He stressed that professionals should never underestimate the power of small, and the significant impact the small has on the commitment of performance and success of those around us. So we look at micro-messaging are the key to unlocking or shutting down potential, micro-advantages are positive micro-messages that have the power to unlock potential, while micro-inequities are negative micro-messages that have the power to shut down potential. So when we look at how all of this is played out in law firms, these taxes that we put on our diverse, LGBTQ, as well as the lawyers who have disabilities.
We’re doing this on a day-to-day basis; we’re asking them to be our face and our brand ambassadors for activities. And you’re especially seeing it more and more on new hires and new associates because they’re the ones that are looking to get their “sea legs” more or less within the time they joined firms. So we presented this at this workshop, and we asked our peers to really think about how they, in turn, could turn this around within their organizations and look at ways to turn the tax into a reward. And think about how it can benefit the diverse lawyers, instead of creating problems for them down the road.
Jeena Cho: [00:12:30] Yeah, and it seems like this problem is so multi-faceted because they’re offering the tools and support for the diverse lawyers within a law firm, but also helping people within the law firm see that this is something that is happening. And I think sometimes you’re just resistant to even acknowledging that this is what’s happening. So what were some of the strategies that you offered or what are some of the tools or things that diverse attorneys themselves can do, so that they can find their sea legs as you put it?
Demetria Johnson: [00:13:11] Sure. It’s looking at giving credit hours and providing sponsorships, including opportunities and acknowledging and appreciating the work that they’re doing. So for diverse attorneys, it’s also seeking feedback from the individuals that they’re working for. Everybody likes to be acknowledged for the work that they’re doing, correct? So we want to make sure that they’re out there seeking feedback that they need because, in an environment where you are again trying to find your fit in it (and especially in big law and for lawyers of color), it’s much harder than it is for their non-diverse counterparts. So seeking sponsorships and we talked about seeking mentoring from the individuals within your practice groups, being inclusive; because diversity is not just counting, it’s a culture. And finding a firm that matches the culture that you have, and being your own advocate as important as well. So if you’re going to attend these events, make it to your benefit when you do it. So for instance, if the firm comes to you and wants you to participate in a recruiting event, ensure that it’s your school that you’re going to, to participate in. That way, you can help with the recruitment of individuals from your school or from your association, whether to be BALSA, APALSA, or OUTLAW. Find out what your affinity group is, and use it to your advantage in those ways.
Jeena Cho: [00:15:09] Yeah, I think that’s such a great suggestion. How about for the firm in general? So for everybody else at the law firm, what can they do to make their law firm a more inclusive place? What can they do to be as you said “champions,” which I really love. I tend to just call them allies, but for the lawyers within the firm that are kind of looking around saying, hey I think we have a diversity and inclusion problem here. What can we do to make this place more inclusive, where people can truly feel that they can be home and feel that they can be free to be their authentic selves?
Demetria Johnson: [00:15:50] Right, I think that’s so true. It’s important to have a culture where people can be their authentic self. And so I use that term before like you said, champion because you want to create that environment. So I feel where people can do that is to really sit back and listen. Because as Brene Myers said when I was working at a firm a few years ago, we were conducting an unconscious bias program and it was for all lawyers. And the first session of this training started with the leadership because it was important to start from the top down. And your champions, especially when you look at the leadership, leadership is going to be majority white in these major law firms.
[00:16:49] So the one message that she tried to hone in and resonate with them is no shame, blame, nor heart attack when you have these conversations. And if you can start and get people to understand that everybody has a say, everybody has an opinion, you can bring more people to the conversation. And I say that because I try to live that also, you know diversity is not only my vocation it’s my avocation as well, being a woman of color. So I say that in my everyday life; when I conduct conversations with people in my community, with people in my family, and with my friends. For instance, if I have a different view or belief of someone else, and someone will say to me, well how can you be friends with this person and they have a totally different view of what you do for your vocation? And I say, but that’s the reason why; because everybody has a right to their own opinion and a voice to say what they want to say. So how can I stifle that opinion or their voice? I have to be someone who is not judge and jury, but someone who can listen to them. And if we all would open up and just sit and listen and utilize our listening skills…
[00:18:33] As my good friend and colleague Kori Carew said on her podcast with you the other day, if we would invoke those listening skills and a sense of grace, we would be in a much better place. Even within our own communities, but also within law firms. Because oftentimes we’re not listening to what people are saying and having open and meaningful conversations and communications. And I think that’s where you bring champions in. Because after we had our unconscious bias training program, people were having more difficult conversations amongst themselves and in the room, because they felt that there was no shame, blame, or attack being held during that time.
Jeena Cho: [00:19:31] Yeah, I really love that; No shame, blame, or attack. You know I find that it’s one thing to say I’m going to show up to this conversation, and I’m going to show up with no shame, blame, or attack, and then the person just said something, right? I had this happen recently where I was interviewing someone, and I said, “I’m noticing that your entire team is white, male, and I want to know what your company policy is on diversity and inclusion.” And he said, well diversity and inclusion are certainly important to us, but we’re not going to lower our standards in hiring. And I felt so… I’m telling you this story now and I’m just feeling so angry. It makes my stomach turn and I just feel so angry, and I wanted to be like, “How dare you, how dare you say that!” But of course I have to keep my calm, and I just get so tired. And I’m sure you must have that sensation too, so thoughts on showing up and having that be your practice or your prayer; like please allow me to show up without shame, without blame and attack, but sometimes you feel attacked, you feel so unheard and unseen. So thoughts on that?
Demetria Johnson: [00:20:58] Right, right, right. That’s true, that’s true. Because people also, I think you’re right Jeena, people have to also see you. So if you don’t see me, you can’t hear me, and you’re not going to listen to me. So how are you going to make them see you, without being as they say (and I’ll use this because I am a black woman) the angry black woman. And be seen as the angry black woman, stomping my feet and raising my voice. And there are ways in which you can do that, for example, I had the opportunity to present diversity strategy and business plans to the executive board of one of the firms that I work with. Every six months, we would have the opportunity to present our diversity strategy. And I was glad that I had a voice or a seat at the table to be able to do that. I was attending one board meeting, and right before I went to the board meeting I received notice that an African-American, a black lawyer was leaving the firm. A young black lawyer, and also an LGBT lawyer was leaving the firm.
[00:22:30] Now at this time in my role I was the Director of Diversity, but I had recruited these individuals from law school. And I remember thinking, sitting at my desk like five minutes before I was supposed to go up to this board meeting. And I felt such rage and such anger that they were leaving the firm. The same day, on the same day that morning I get the same notification. And I thought to myself, what are we doing wrong? What are we doing wrong? Now we applaud ourself when we’re doing so many things right, but on the same day, I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. I couldn’t think beyond that e-mail that was in front of me. And I went up to the meeting and I had my notes and was ready to do my presentation. And as I presented to the board, I sat there. Now these are all the top stakeholders in the firm are in this room, and there is a room full of 20 people. And I’m sitting there and a conversation started, and one of the stakeholders brought up that this person was leaving. And at that time I guess I didn’t have my poker face on.
And one of them asked me what were my thoughts on this, and I took a little pause and I leaned forward and I said, “We’re sitting here and we keep having this conversation over and over and over and over again. It’s like the act of insanity, we keep doing the same thing over and over again, looking for something different.” And I said I’m just frustrated. We talk about the numbers, we talk about what we’re doing, how we’re going to achieve a certain target for women and diverse lawyers, how to put them through a sponsorship program, how we’re going to work on audits within our practice groups. But we’re sitting here and we’re talking about the same thing every time we have this discussion, the same thing. And they said, what do you propose? And I said, we need to have a conversation with those individuals and find out why they’re leaving.
And it may not have anything to do with the work that we’re doing here, the work that they did here, the initiatives and the programs that we have going on. Because sometimes it’s not necessarily saying that they (use that term, people) are dying on the vine, but it could be that sometimes people just don’t want to stay in a law firm. And I said it could be non-diverse and diverse lawyers; sometimes we have to realize that people just don’t want to stay, that’s not their path to be partners. But if we’re not having a conversation then we don’t know, right? So going back to your original question, that was me having my, one of my colleagues in the international office called me up and I raced out of there and she said, “You had that Sheryl Sandberg moment – you leaned in.” And I said I guess I did.
[00:26:16] I didn’t realize at that time, at that moment that that’s what I was doing. But I think it was, as you were talking with your own experience, it was a moment of frustration that led me to that point. And after that, I was able to get people to see me and to hear me and to take into account thoughts on how we need to move the needle forward and think about what we were going to do. And it was the right room to have the conversation at that time because you had the right stakeholders there. And so things started to change at that moment, more people listened at that time. So I think that’s the important factor, is having the people in the room; and that’s how you create champions. And those naysayers and the non-choir members, that’s how you bring them in. Once you can bring one, you know reach one teach one, once you bring one on and you teach them, you start to create a ripple effect.
Jeena Cho: [00:27:25] Yeah, yeah I think that’s such a great message. And I’ve been on various planning committees and things like that, and being a woman of color (and I’m sure you get this too) where they invite you because you’re supposed to fix a diversity and inclusion issue for that conference, or whatever that group may be. And I’ve had those moments where I keep having these gentle conversations with people, and I always think it’s such a win when on their own, without me prompting they’ll look and say, this panel is lacking diversity. Maybe we should go out and reach out to some other folks, and I go YES! It’s such a winning moment when it enters into people’s ethos. Because I think if you’re always in the majority it’s a space in which you feel comfortable obviously, so you may not necessarily have that awareness or that mindful practice to be able to pause and say, who’s NOT at this table? Who are the key stakeholders that should be here, and where are the voices that are missing? And I think that’s such a wonderful practice to have as humans, you know? Like how do I create a space where I can be more inclusive and more welcoming of other people, and what does that practice look like on a day-to-day basis?
Demetria Johnson: [00:28:56] I agree, I agree. And I think that especially given that law is one of the least racially diverse professions in the nation. I was doing some fact checking, you know the Bureau of Labor & Statistics for 2017 says that 89% of lawyers are white. So when you look at that statistic and look at the statistics of VAULT, which says out of that 90% of equity partners are white, even though one in four law firm associates is a person of color. Where is that experience for minority attorneys? It’s based on their demographic group. So we have to, as a profession of diversity professionals, as a profession of lawyers, you are looking in lawyers of color. You are looking that you need champions who are of the majority.
And I think Timothy Ryan has done a great job of putting together the coalition of CEO Action, which is forming CEO’s of top corporations and a few law firms as well to come together and say what can we do to enhance diversity within our corporations, and enhance the pipeline of diversity? And by bringing together the CEO’s and bringing together the diversity professionals, and that’s one thing that I think is very important because you’re looking at not just CEO’s of law firms as I mentioned, but as corporations. And LCLD does a great job doing that as well, but this is starting much further down the pipeline. Like CEO Action is starting with the pipeline and bringing this bus, they call is The Blind Bus, to HBCU’s. So they’re working with presidents of HBCU’s to start the conversation early, and it’s about having that conversation. And when you look at the makeup of these CEO’s, the majority of the CEO’s again are white. So we’ve got to be able to come together and as I said in the beginning, many of us are operating in a place of fear. But we have to bring our authentic self to the conversation and have a conversation with the individuals who don’t look like us. Because we’ll die on the vine if we don’t.
Jeena Cho: [00:32:07] I totally agree with you. Maybe we can shift gears a little bit because as I’m talking to you it occurred to me that the work that you do is taxing for so many reasons. And I’m curious what you do to nourish yourself and to practice self-care. How do you get up every day and show up with that open mindset? Because I think it takes a lot of energy to show up to spaces and say, I’m going to show up and let go of shame, blame, and attack. And also tips that you might have for the listeners out there, just in terms of I feel like we’re all constantly drinking from the firehose now, and I struggle with trying to find my sea legs or that sense of groundedness.
Demetria Johnson: [00:33:07] Sure. So I would say that my peace comes from my relationship with my religion, so with God. That is the one thing that keeps me going, keeps me motivated, keeps me centered, keeps me focused. If I didn’t have that relationship I think that I probably would be in a mental institution at some point, you’d find me wrapped up in a crazier place than I am some days, without that being my guide. And I think family helps me, and my friends help me stay centered. And I think wherever I find it, whether it’s spiritual, whether it be working out, exercise, yoga; I wish I had more time to spend exercising. Also I’m a voracious reader, I like to read. And I like to travel whenever I can get a break, so anytime I can sort of release.
[00:34:23] I have a friend who is the CEO and founder of Diversity, Flexibility & Alliance Group, which is an organization that is focused on flexibility and agile work and diversity. She does this great program on mindset and grit. One of the things is to just let your mind find a place where you can relax, and I think that’s so important for lawyers and for the professionals. If we don’t take time to provide self-care for ourselves, then we’re no good for those that we’re trying to help. And also my personal board is another; they sort of center me and focus me.
Jeena Cho: [00:35:14] I love that, I love all these tools that you have in your toolbox for practicing self-care. Demetria, for the listeners that are out there that want to learn more about your work, where is the best place for them to do that?
Demetria Johnson: [00:35:28] Sure, so I’m on Linked In and I’m also on Twitter @DemetriaRene.
Jeena Cho: [00:35:38] Wonderful. And Demetria, the name of this podcast is called The Resilient Lawyer. What does it mean to be a resilient lawyer to you?
Demetria Johnson: [00:35:48] Being a resilient lawyer to me means putting on your body of armor each day as you approach the work that you do, for both your internal and external stakeholders and to focus on being your authentic self.
Jeena Cho: [00:36:03] Demetria, thank you so much for joining me today. I really appreciate your time and your wisdom.
Demetria Johnson: [00:36:09] Jeena again, thank you for having me. And I appreciate you again and the work that we are doing, and I am thankful that we have this space where we can share this type of information. So thank you.
Closing: [00:36:28] Thanks for joining us on The Resilient Lawyer podcast. If you’ve enjoyed the show, please tell a friend. It’s really the best way to grow the show. To leave us a review on iTunes, search for The Resilient Lawyer and give us your honest feedback. It goes a long way to help with our visibility when you do that, so we really appreciate it. As always, we’d love to hear from you. E-mail us at [email protected] Thanks, and look forward to seeing you next week.