A look at law firm diversity

Opening Statement

Marc Karlinsky

Editor

Last month, Illinois said goodbye to 1st District Appellate Justice Laura Liu, who died at age 49 after a battle with cancer.

I had a chance to meet Justice Liu a few times while reporting for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin on the appellate court beat. But I’ve learned so much more about her as so many in the legal community have come forward with stories and tributes.

I’m struck by a piece about Liu that Chicago Lawyer published less than two years ago, in the June 2014 issue — only a few months after her cancer recurred. In that piece, the justice talked about her personal and professional history and her goals for the new position on the 1st District bench.

One particular aspect of the interview stood out to me as we were assembling this issue, which includes our annual Diversity Survey.

Born in downstate Carbondale, Liu grew up in a Mandarin-speaking household and didn’t speak much English until she entered school. Growing up in an Ohio town where she was the only Asian-American student in a 600- person high school class, she recalled how being subjected to mockery pushed her toward self-isolation — and what she described as “singular achievement” — instead of getting integrating with her classmates.

Years later, she focused on blending in. When she reflected on her first few years practicing law at a Chicago firm in the early 1990s, Liu admitted how self-conscious she felt as one of only a few Asian-American lawyers in the city.

“I was always very careful to make sure I followed all the rules and watched what other people were doing,” Liu said in 2014. “I wanted to fit in more than I wanted to be a trailblazer. I didn’t want to be distinguished from everyone. I didn’t want to be an Asian-American on the rise. I wasn’t mature, prepared or motivated enough to be a role model.”

Undoubtedly, Liu would become a trailblazer. She was the first Chinese-American woman to become a judge in Illinois history when she was appointed to the bench in 2010, and she became the state’s first Asian-American appellate justice in 2014.

More than half a million Asian-Americans call Illinois home, the majority of them in Cook County. Liu’s addition to the court was cause for celebration. But Liu also addressed the other side of that coin — one where those older fears came back into the frame.

“There’s the curiosity from some people as to whether this is a token assignment,” Liu said in the months after her promotion. “That comes with the territory of being a minority and being the first to be in a certain position. But I don’t begrudge anybody. … Whatever their opinion is, they are entitled to it.”

When people look back at Justice Liu’s legacy, I hope it goes well beyond the fact she was a “first” and highlights her actions from the bench. As co-chair of a language access committee, Liu shaped what is now a statewide policy aimed at lowering financial and linguistic barriers to using the courts.

Her colleagues on the bench credited Liu for spotting areas for improvement to language access they might have missed. I imagine some of that insight came from her own personal experience as someone who didn’t fit in so easily during her formative years.

For Liu, embracing and accommodating non-English-speaking people in court wasn’t about good publicity, positive symbolism or political correctness — it was about people’s actual ability to use the American justice system.

Discussing diversity isn’t an easy thing to do. Distilling unique people down to a set of demographic categories in a table gives a broad view with very little nuance. Innocently, it can turn the discussion into a superficial contest to see which firms can claim the most categories. Cynically, it can be used as a way to discredit people for their individual accomplishments and accolades.

Tokenism is harmful — as is pretending that race, gender, religion and sexual orientation don’t play a role in public life.

We celebrate trailblazers and their milestones because they’re an indication that society is growing more inclusive. But the true things we should celebrate are the insights, ideas and accountability that those trailblazers — from all different walks of life and cultural perspectives — offer their professions and occupations.

I’m proud Chicago Lawyer has collected diversity data for many years — it’s a great way to take the pulse of the Chicago legal market and ensure firms back up their words.

But I’m also the first to admit it’s only a very cursory look into the topic of diversity in the legal realm. The survey table is the start of a discussion, not the end of one. It’s a discussion we can’t fit into a single issue of Chicago Lawyer, but one that should be present constantly. I’m looking forward to hearing what you think on how we can best conduct that conversation.

Correction

Our April issue featured a Q&A with Victoria Watkins, deputy director of the city of Chicago’s Office of Legislative Counsel and Government Affairs. Watkins told our reporter, “I protect the city in Springfield.” Somewhere on the editing desk, it got changed to “from Springfield.” That one-word difference offers a vastly different connotation than what Watkins told us, and I’d like to apologize for the error.