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#YLDisMe campaign defies the stereotype of what a lawyer is and does

Senior Editor Top Stories

The Florida Bar's Young Lawyers Division highlights its diverse membership in an effort to foster inclusion

#YLDisMeAnisha Patel and Iris Elijah overcame longer odds than most to become successful lawyers, and both have endured their fair share of slights.

It would usually happen when they arrived early for a hearing or deposition.

“I’ve walked in with a male colleague of mine, both dressed to the nines, and I’ve been mistaken as a court reporter or a paralegal,” Patel said. “Not that there’s anything wrong with either of those professions — I’ve been a paralegal — but I’ve worked very hard to be where I am.”

Iris ElijahElijah describes almost the same experience.

“I’ve not had the luxury of actually being mistaken as a court reporter,” she said. “As a black woman, I’ve often been mistaken as a defendant — I kid you not.”

Now, as chair and vice-chair, respectively, of the YLD’s Inclusion and Equality Committee, Elijah and Patel are promoting a creative solution — “#YLDisMe.”

YLD President Adam White considers the #YLDisMe Campaign a top priority.

“Obviously, I’m not a person who’s faced bias on any level,” he said. “But members of my board and other attorneys that I know face it day in and day out in the profession, so it became very important to me.”

The #YLDisMe Campaign will be featuring social media posts and video testimonials by YLD members from various under-represented groups, as well as diversity and inclusion webinars.

“These highlighted members will provide examples to our membership that attorneys come from a variety of backgrounds, ethnicities, orientations, physical appearances, and physical abilities,” White said. “These members will explain why they chose to become an attorney, what struggles they faced to achieve their goal, how they have overcome those struggles, and the barriers they have encountered as an attorney.”

The YLD will also work with local affiliates to “re-energize” their diversity and inclusion programming, White said.

The campaign kicked off with a testimonial from YLD board member Haley Moss, the nation’s first openly autistic lawyer, on July 26, the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

On August 7, at 12 p.m. EST, the campaign is sponsoring a free webinar, “Confronting and Mitigating Unconscious and Explicit Bias in the Legal Profession.”

The webinar will be moderated by retired 13th Judicial Circuit Judge Claudia Isom, and feature a panel with a wide range of expertise: Kori S. Carew, chief inclusion & diversity officer, Seyfarth; Marissa Ditkowsky, Gallogly Family Foundation fellow; Bacardi Jackson, managing attorney, Miami office, Southern Poverty Law Center; and Jarred L. Reiling, associate, King and Spalding.

The webinar is approved for 1 General CLE Credit and 1 Bias Elimination Credit, and organizers say the objective is to give attorneys the tools they need to ethically identify and eliminate bias in the legal profession. Participants will also learn best practices to mitigate bias as inclusive leaders by routinely checking decision-making processes and countering biased thinking.

A Miami lawyer who serves as associate general counsel for Florida International University, Elijah said one of the goals of the campaign is to highlight legal career opportunities for young people.

“Before I went to law school, I never met an attorney, especially a black attorney, who looks like me,” she said. “It’s hard to be what you do not see.”

After she decided to become a lawyer, a mentor assured Elijah that she didn’t have to follow a traditional path.

“When I went to law school, it was, you’re either going to be a public defender, a state attorney, or you’re going to work at a firm,” she said. “I knew quickly that was not going to work for me, and if those were my only options, I probably should stop going to law school.”

It’s an understatement to say that Patel, a Tampa lawyer, worked hard to become an associate with Hill Ward Henderson’s commercial litigation group.

Anisha PatelBorn in the United Kingdom to Indian parents and raised with her brother in a single-parent home, Patel earned a law degree from the London School of Economics.

Patel moved to Florida two years after she was called to the Bar in England. When she learned that her qualifications didn’t transfer, she worked full-time as a paralegal at Hill Ward Henderson while she went to Stetson University to earn another law degree.

“I’ve just been very lucky in that I’ve had mentors who I call champions within my firm who have supported me and really pushed me to be as successful as I can be,” she said. “But I realize not everybody has had that.”

Being mistaken for a non-lawyer raises much larger concerns than bruised feelings, Patel said.

“The biggest issue there is, I would never want my client to feel, or any client to feel, that hiring a diverse attorney would mean that their attorney would get mistaken as a non-lawyer,” she said.

Campaign organizers say eliminating bias is crucial because it denies the profession access to the intellectual capital it needs to flourish.

“I think this campaign is going to really highlight what makes a diverse attorney really valuable to our community, and also, how we as a society can help to make sure that diverse attorneys are celebrated and given the same opportunity that everyone else should be,” Patel said.

A YLD survey in 2015 demonstrated that eliminating bias in the profession will require a prolonged effort, Elijah said.

“My hope is that this is just the beginning, and that it will continue long after I’m the chair,” she said.

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