I recently co-authored an article on nine ways you can be a better ally with two other nonresident members of the State Bar of Wisconsin — Roya Bahrami and Ioua Alen Marcyn B. Lagazo. As we note in the article, “Being an ally isn’t about being “woke.” It’s about being a decent human being.”

A group of people helping one another climb a rock.

There is a growing sense among bar associations throughout the United States that lawyers should be required to take continuing legal education courses that focus on diversity, inclusion, and the elimination of bias. It’s a response to the realization that the legal profession, like most others, still has work to do if lawyers expect to compete with one another on the content of our character and mastery of legal skills rather than our looks or beliefs.

But attending a program on diversity isn’t going to turn a lawyer into an ally any more than attending a program summarizing the latest rulings from the Wisconsin Supreme Court makes someone an expert in appellate law. True understanding comes from doing.

With that in mind, we’ve pulled together several tips and tactics for anyone who wants to take concrete steps to becoming an ally and ensuring that lawyers, as individuals, as a profession, and as part of society, are working toward making the world a little bit better than we found it.

1. Learn with an Open Mind

Before you start to learn about how to become an ally, have an open mind. That means you must leave your own preferences and opinions at the door in certain circumstances. Recognize that everyone has biases. Understand that having privilege does not mean you didn’t work hard or that you didn’t struggle for what you have. Having privilege means that there are some things in life that you don’t have to think about or won’t experience just because of who you are.

Once your mind is open, then it’s time to learn. Study more about a particular group in your legal community, whether that group includes your colleagues or the clients you serve. Find out what challenges a particular group faces. You can look at a number of nonfiction books, podcasts, and documentaries to start.

2. Listen Intently

After you have done some research, it is likely that you will have some questions. It is okay to ask an underrepresented friend or colleague if they would be willing to chat so you can better understand the challenges they’ve faced or experiences they’ve endured. However, don’t expect someone from a diverse background to drop everything they are doing and take on the emotional labor of educating you.

As you ask your questions, listen for understanding, not to prepare for a rebuttal. Attorneys are prone to being skeptical and have developed skills to look for weaknesses in an opponent’s statements or arguments. Resist the urge. Don’t interrupt people as they speak. Acknowledge what you’ve heard from your friend or colleague before going on to make another point. When a person says something that is different from your own philosophy or belief, it is important to accept the description of the person’s experiences as real, even if you haven’t experienced it or don’t understand it.

These conversations can be uncomfortable, but being an ally isn’t always convenient or comfortable. Ask questions: For example, which changes in the workplace would help your friend or colleague succeed, excel, or feel more accepted; how you can be more supportive as a friend or coworker.

3. Work on Reframing

Everyone has unconscious biases. We all assume that the way we are living our lives is the best way to live – otherwise we would seek to make some changes. This becomes a problem when we project our own preferences onto others.

Reframing the way we think and talk about our differences can help everyone view them as assets.

For example, we should be actively inclusive in thought and deed. Don’t assume that all your friends and coworkers are straight or cisgender. Someone close to you could be looking for support in their coming-out process. Not making assumptions will give them the space they need.

Another example is changing the way we talk about religious beliefs and observances. Instead of saying to someone who observes Ramadan, “you poor thing, it must be difficult for you to starve yourself all day,” you could try saying, “I have so much admiration for your commitment to your faith.”

Being an ally is about believing that all people should be treated with dignity and respect and then taking the next step by applying this belief to how we interact with others.

4. Say Their Name

If you can pronounce Gillett, Ixonia, Prairie du Chien, and Waukesha, you can learn how to correctly pronounce the names of your colleagues and clients. If someone tells you their preferred pronouns, you can remember them, too.

If you need help remembering pronouns or pronunciations, make liberal use of the notes function on your phone.

If you know someone’s difficult-to-pronounce name is being mangled, quietly let people know they are making a mistake, and try to say the name correctly as many times as you can. Don’t make a big deal out of it. Just get it done.

5. Be a Stand-Byer, Not a Bystander

While the law may recognize the role of the innocent bystander, allies cannot. Don’t stand by and wait for someone from a diverse background to speak up when you hear an off-color joke or see someone being cut out of a decision-making process.

You don’t find that funny. You know what is happening isn’t right. Stand up and stand by others.

Stand-byers also speak up to amplify diverse voices. Back up others who speak up in meetings at professional events and in your personal life. Be the second when there are formal opportunities for discussion of difficult topics.

6. Life Outside the Office Is Important, No Matter What It Includes

Everyone you know has a life outside work. Nobody should feel pressured to justify spending their free time as they see fit. Workplaces and professional organizations should respect the reality that networking and social activities must reflect the non-work activities of everyone in the profession.

Many parents want to get home in time to do more than put their kids to bed. And just because someone doesn’t have children doesn’t mean that they don’t have equally important preferences for how they spend their time after work. Professional development and networking can also occur in the morning, at lunch, or even at family-friendly weekend activities.

These types of career-enriching opportunities also must occur in places other than bars. It’s no secret that substance abuse is a problem in the legal profession. There are also individuals of certain religions who abstain from alcohol or coffee. Instead of saying, “let’s grab a coffee” or “let’s go out for drinks,” try being more inclusive by offering a wider variety of beverages and focusing on hosting a fun event rather than an opportunity to chat while consuming calories.

7. Share the Load

If you are working for or with an organization that has a formal diversity initiative in place, make sure the burden of implementation is equally shared. For example, staff and volunteers in organizations such as the State Bar of Wisconsin, which has a diversity committee, must keep in mind the importance of asking diverse people to serve on practice area committees instead of, or in addition to, asking them to focus solely on diversity issues. Diversity initiatives are time-consuming and emotionally draining, so nobody should be pigeon-holed into focusing solely on them.

8. Don’t Wait for Volunteers

Instead of asking for volunteers when a job needs to get done, go through your mental Rolodex®. Try to think of someone you know who would be a good fit for the role but might not feel comfortable or confident enough to volunteer themselves. Ask the person whether they’d like to participate. Sometimes all we need is a push in the right direction and some encouragement to become an active diversity ally.

9. Forgiveness and Commitment

As diversity allies, we all need to realize that people make mistakes. We shouldn’t be “canceling” another person if they’ve truly apologized for something done in the past. If someone has made a mistake and is showing sincere commitment to changing their behavior, their past behavior should be referenced only when there is an opportunity to seek feedback, to grow, and to move forward. We need to let people grow, and we need to believe that people can change and improve.

‘Ally’ Is Not Just a Noun

Being an ally isn’t about being “woke.” It’s about being a decent human being. It’s also not a self-appointed title you give yourself or add to your LinkedIn profile. Saying you’re an ally is not enough. We have to show it through our words and actions.

We hope these tips give everyone some insight into how easy it can be to show people who are different from you that they belong in this profession and have an important role to play in its future.

This article originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of Wisconsin Lawyer Magazine. 95 Wis. Law. 16-18 (June 2022).

Photo of Emily Kelchen Emily Kelchen

Emily S. Kelchen founded Kelchen Consulting after realizing the free time she spent building websites and experimenting with social media-driven marketing and advocacy was much more fun than working as a traditional lobbyist. Emily is active in both the New Jersey and Wisconsin…

Emily S. Kelchen founded Kelchen Consulting after realizing the free time she spent building websites and experimenting with social media-driven marketing and advocacy was much more fun than working as a traditional lobbyist. Emily is active in both the New Jersey and Wisconsin state bar associations, and is a member of the American Bar Association. She is a member of the State Bar of Wisconsin’s communications committee and on the board of its Nonresident Lawyers Division. Emily graduated from Truman State University in Kirksville, MO, with a degree in political science, and earned her J.D. from the University of Wisconsin Law School in Madison, WI. She currently resides in Flemington, NJ, and therefore relishes any opportunity to talk about the Lindbergh baby kidnapping trial.