Not long ago, lawprof Nancy Leong got an unpleasant lesson in courtesy and clout. When you’re invited to be a guest on someone else’s panel, you can accept or decline, but you can’t demand they recreate the panel to meet your demands. She was unceremoniously dropped, and thought they were wrong because, naturally, she couldn’t be.
It’s not that Nancy’s concern wasn’t real or sincere, that there be greater representation of women and minorities on her panel, as she was the only one, but that her effort to achieve her goal by an ultimatum backfired. Do it or else? She got “or elsed,” and then there were none.
This raises a key point that might not be obvious to many. People are asked to speak because they have something to say that other people want to hear. Nobody goes to a conference, a panel, a presentation, because of the demographics of the participants.
That said, there is a dearth of demographic variety at legal conferences, which means that we often find ourselves with presenters who have nothing to offer, but are old white men. At the same time, we don’t get to hear women and minorities who are outstanding in their fields, knowledgeable and more interesting than some guy whose only claim to fame is his being pals with the guy throwing the conference.
Lexblog CEO Kevin O’Keefe goes to more of these conferences and panels than anybody I know. He’s a regular speaker, and he’s pretty good at it. I’ve shared a podium with him in the past, as well as the occasional beer. Much as we disagree about a lot of things, we are good friends. So i was surprised to learn that he’s prepared to never speak again if it will bring diversity to legal speakers.
Legal librarian and tech leader, Sarah Glassmeyer shared that she logged into Twitter last week to find another legal tech conference with all male panels.
Glassmeyer presumably was referring to ALM’s Legalweek Show, long known as Legaltech show. The first session I sat in, a pretty good one on AI, was six men, no women
I then noticed the keynote speakers being advertised on large screens. I shared on Twitter that of the sixteen keynote speakers only three were women.
Kevin’s reaction was that she’s right.
Glassmeyer’s right, time to stop complaining and time to start demanding diversity in legal tech conference speakers.
While this is legal tech as opposed to anything of interest to practicing lawyers, the push is no different. Glassmeyer is a law librarian, which means she’s entitled to scold lawyers for not being as woke as she demands without any of the burdens of being a lawyer. To that end, she came up with two lists.
The first was a list of people who are anything but old white men who can fill diversity quotas at conferences. She titled the list “POC and Underepresented People of Legal Tech and Innovation.” She did not call her list “people who have things to say that anyone else wants to hear.” Then there were her ideas for how to make change happen.
- Refuse to speak on non-diverse panels.
- Offer to give up your slot to a diverse individual. Have suggestions ready (Another way this list might come in handy.)
- Insist that any conference you speak at or attend has a code of conduct. Here’s a great starting point for one. And yes, your conference needs one.
- Speak out about the need for diversity. This can’t be a battle only fought by underrepresented populations. Some CIS het White men need to take up the banner. I know some of you just rolled your eyes at the phrase “CIS Het White Men.” Get over it.
Will Kevin offer to give up his slot to a “diverse individual”? Will he refuse to speak, like Nancy? When you’re a guest at someone else’s party, do you get to “insist” on anything and expect to still be welcome?
And then there’s Glassmeyer’s “deplorable” moment, where she indulges her inner infant and calls out the CIS het White men. Did you roll your eyes? Frankly, no one who would bother to read anything written by Glassmeyer was likely to roll their eyes, since they already shared her college sophomore’s grasp of effective rhetoric.
“Get over it.” Is that how it works? Will you be shamed into being a social justice warrior for diversity because of your need for Sarah Glassmeyer’s woke approval?
Does her admonition compel you to put random people on panels because of their genitalia? Will you start inquiring as to preferred sex partners of otherwise desirable speakers? I suspect I’ve heard gay lawyers speak in the past even if I didn’t know it, because I don’t ask speakers about their sexual preference. Was I remiss? Was it relevant if they knew how to rip an agent to shreds on cross?
Kevin was convinced.
Five or six years ago I was asked by the Practicing Law Institute to put together two all day programs on social media and blogging. The first thing I was handed were the diversity requirements for reach panel and the entire program. It’s obvious other conferences are not following PLI’s lead — or at least not enforcing any diversity policies they may have.
I don’t remember that panel. I wasn’t on it. Kevin didn’t ask me, but then, what would I know about social media and blogging? Surely there are many other lawyers who have blogs that could be far more informative than me. Surely anyone attending that conference would learn far more by virtue of the diversity of the programs than they would hearing an old white man like me.
It’s not that diversity is wrong, or an unworthy goal. It’s that diversity isn’t a substitute for quality. Had the point been that we’re not hearing from illuminating people who have much to contribute to our knowledge and make us better at whatever it is we’re supposed to learn, because presenters tend to have no better qualifications than being part of the old boys club, then I would raise my fist for the cause.
But if the best they can argue is for programs consisting of random vaginas, then they’ve got nothing. Glassmeyer insults the very people she seeks to promote, but lacks the awareness to grasp why. Put the best people on the podium and people will want to listen, regardless of their irrelevant characteristics. Don’t deny us anyone’s brilliance, and don’t expect us to care what someone has to say because they wear makeup and high heels.
And if you’re invited to speak, accept or decline, but you’re not entitled to dictate how someone else is to run their program. If you’re disinvited because you’ve behaved like a smug, self-righteous ass, too bad. Get over it.