We are thrilled to be joined by Lisa Tatum to discuss her thoughts on diversity in the legal profession and her experience and advice on success as a female attorney. Tatum is the Immediate Past President of the State Bar of Texas, and was the first African-American to be elected to the office.
LWL: Why is diversity important in the legal profession?
Tatum: Diversity is so very important. It is critical. Our world is better when we work together to accomplish whatever we put our minds to. Hopefully our intentions are always for good. You know there have been decades of talk, discussions, debates and arguments about how diversity matters. It is a simple and powerful concept. When you chose to bring individuals to the table from different walks of life – different age, backgrounds, beliefs, class, culture, climate, education, ethnicity, faith, gender, marital status, popular thought, race, religion, and stature – you significantly increase the knowledge and wisdom you have available as a resource. Like any working group, it should be created with the objective of working together for a common goal. So conflicting mindsets decrease efficiency. Open minds with differing perspectives that may disagree can be a very good thing. Studies have shown us that diversity works. Studies have shown us that efficiency can improve significantly along with the bottom line. Studies show us that the people who work or live in that environment thrive and are happier. What studies cannot convey are the intangible benefits that come to participants who choose to work together like this. Neither do the studies convey a sense of urgency or necessity for this diverse culture to spread because it is effective, welcoming, productive and profitable on so many levels. Only people can do that. The most penetrating ways that I have seen this is by either a diverse team member (individually diverse or not) being a living example and contagious personality for its success or by a person of influence and decision making power using that authority to demand diversity become part of the culture over which they have influence.
What I see more recently, and perhaps I can go so far as to say what I fear, is the sometime slow and other times sudden erosion of the civil rights that we all are supposed to have and share over the past fifty to sixty years. We are the legal profession. We, particularly as women and minorities, have a greater understanding of the power of the law, how to effectuate it, change it and improve it, and how the law can protect you just as it can leave you out in the cold. So how is it that we allow the strength and power of diversity to weaken, nationally and globally, permitting the efforts of those who came before us and those who are advocating now to be trampled upon? Are we sharing with others that the Voting Rights Act no longer has the teeth and enforceability it had a decade ago? Are we educating ourselves and others about the need for laws that protect or at least do not harm and judicial decisions that do should do the same? Are we using our skill set to peacefully educate and effectuate change? If so, is what we are doing enough? Is it enough for ourselves, the kind of life we lead or want to lead or for our children and their children after?
What kind of world do we want to live in? For some, the answer may be that they do not want to live in an diverse environment, at least not the kind of which I speak. Maybe for some, we should define diversity before we talk about the importance of it. For me, the good Lord saw fit to put a bunch of men in a room to create a nation and its laws. They did not have me in mind. Many did not have my interest at heart. For many, I probably did not matter. But those men, created something that became the foundation of American legal structure. And, their differing minds came up with something great. Over the years, women began to play a part in the arena. Eventually, so did people of color, Native Americans and those of other nationalities. I may not agree with it all. I may not like how it has evolved or where I feel it may be headed without intervention. But because it exists and has worked better than any other structure I have seen, I will not give up on it. I will continue to push for the engagement of people of different walks of life. I will push for diversity in our legal profession and I will push for us to meet our responsibility as lawyers and attorneys to make a way for all of us on our society and beyond.
LWL: Can you share a story about a female attorney you admire?
Tatum: I met a woman at a law conference several years ago. She was poised and had a remarkable presence. The conference was attended by mostly men. There were few women. There were even fewer people of color. After several hours, I was able to introduce myself to her and visit just briefly. She had been practicing for over thirty years and expressed delight in seeing me there. The conference was held over several days. At the end of the second day, I was able to spend a little more time with her. She shared with me her experience of coming into the is all male practice area. She offered me guidance on how to settle in and become of a part of this sometimes unwelcoming and occasionally cold culture. She stressed the importance of knowing your trade, not making mistakes in your practice and penetrating the market with a strong and reliable reputation. Then, she told me not to lose my stylish flare and not to dress like them to fit in. She reminded me that being a woman is a beautiful and sometimes difficult thing and that it is so worth it.
LWL: How have you seen the attitude toward women attorneys changed since you became licensed?
Tatum: Both our male colleagues and the public are more receptive now than when I began. So I am aware of some of what the women before me had to tolerate and endure. I remember watching my female colleagues, particularly the white female attorneys, as I tried to gauge the legal playing field and forecast my potential at success in various legal arenas. At that time their acceptance into the legal field and business world was significantly different. I felt very aware of the fact that the practice of law was still very new to the idea of people of color being a part of it. Outside of the office, when folks learned I was a lawyer they often assumed it was a public interest or civil rights lawyer, for example. During interviewing as a young lawyer, there were often discussion about whether I was a good fit to be the first black lawyer or lawyer of color in their firm. Our demographic numbers have changed and there are far more women in the workplace. The legal arena is no different. Those numbers are up for all women. It is a necessary change, especially if you see this as part of the diverse culture in which you wish to live. I want to see us being a part of the making the decisions that affect us from where we live and work as well as how we exercise our personal freedoms and chase our dreams.
LWL: How did you find balance between your personal and professional life. What is your favorite thing to do when not practicing law?
Tatum: I do not have balance. I am not sure that such a thing exists for someone like me. If you mean do I find time for me, time to break away from work, obligations or volunteering, I used to be better at it. I hope to be again. I think I am in a season where there will be little rest for a while. My “balance” is more an ebb and flow of time allocation. It drifts toward me and things away from work and professional volunteering and then drifts back to client needs, deadlines, and business operations, and then back again. I am very happy. I love what I do. It is a good thing or I would be in world of hurt for the time that is invested. My favorite thing when not practicing law used to be trail walks or runs. I do not have a favorite right now. The season I am in has not afforded me much time away from practicing law, my term in the presidency and volunteering for the Bar. I am spending more time practicing law now that I am Immediate Past President. I am loving being back with my clients and at my desk more. I am getting more time for myself gradually. I was able to get the house ready for Christmas over the Thanksgiving Day holiday with leisure for the first time in three years. I know it only gets better from here.
LWL: When you were sworn in as President of the State Bar of Texas, you broke the mold by becoming the first African-American to serve in that position. What qualities or attributes do you have that were integral to your groundbreaking success?
Tatum: I believe the qualities I exemplify, and both the Nominations and Elections Committee and the membership were looking for, are those traits we admire in the best of us as attorneys and people. I believe that having an understanding of the workings of the State Bar of Texas, a history and a future of dedication to the profession as a volunteer and a demonstrated ability to effectively work with a broad array of judges, lawyers and non-lawyers in the furtherance of our mission and profession are the most important aspects. I believe being true to who you are and to your word are also very meaningful qualities we as lawyers wanted and needed to see at the time. These two facets together to me meant there was a real and strong probability that the State Bar of Texas could and would make much needed headway for the benefit of its members and also for the public.