The Empathy Project: A Call for Sharing

Sharing · Listening · Learning · Changing · Connecting

Many in the legal profession are sharing a profound sense of pervasive pain, anger, confusion, dismay, fear, and heartache as a reaction to current events. From the pandemic, with countless lost lives and livelihoods, to the protests, demonstrations, and unrest arising from not only witnessing the murder of a Black man at the hands a police officer while other officers stood by, making no attempt to stop him, to protests and demonstrations in cities across the country, and, for many, being inescapably confronted, perhaps for the first time, with the frustration, invisibility, and injustice that are a daily part of the normal lives of Black Americans, we may be professionals, but we are also part of a people in pain.

Like many, we at the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession (“IILP”) have been pondering how best to contribute something beyond a statement of support that would result in, as our tagline says, “Real change. Now.” As lawyers, words may be our tools of choice but as human beings, we recognize that action is needed. In 2019, IILP launched a campaign called #TalkIntoAction. Partnering with many of the organizations with whom we had been privileged to work during our first ten years, #TalkIntoAction was designed to be an effort by which lawyers would spend a minimum of one hour with another lawyer whom they didn’t know well and who did not share the same diversity characteristic(s) and spend that hour discussing diversity and inclusion in the legal profession. Afterwards, the two discussants would post a selfie of themselves onto their social media platform of choice with #TalkIntoAction. We heard such positive response from participants that we repeated the project in early 2020.  Again, the response was enthusiastic and we had planned to repeat it in 2021.

But given the anguish and sadness gripping the United States and so many other countries in response to witnessing the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and visualizing the countless others that weren’t filmed, and understanding it within the broader context of a history of tolerating or ignoring attacks upon, inequities endured by, and injustices suffered by Black people, we realize that IILP needs to amplify #TalkIntoAction and to do it now.

IILP is a small organization. We haven’t a membership base that we can mobilize. We understand and accept that many view us as “cerebral” in the legal profession’s diversity and inclusion arena. We embrace that and will attempt to play to our strengths. Over the years, we have been privileged to have lawyers who are racial minorities sharing with us their own stories about their personal racialized experiences. Here’s one that E. Macey Russell, a partner at Boston’s Choate Hall & Stewart shared:

I was a young associate and playing on the firm’s Lawyers League basketball team. After a game, I was walking home with two good friends, also African Americans. We were all in our late 20s, had beards, and weighed over 200 lbs. As we attempted to cross a street, police cruisers cut off our path from all directions. The police got out with their weapons drawn and told us not to move. Within minutes, we were handcuffed. When I questioned what was happening, a police officer hit me from behind and I fell onto the pavement – face down and handcuffed. While starring at the pavement, I knew that their guns were still drawn and pointed in my direction. Hours later, they released us from the South End police station and told to be on our way, as if nothing had happened. I later found out that the suspects they were seeking were 15-17 years old and about 140 lbs. I filed a lawsuit against the police. Dean Richland of Wayne Budd’s firm represented me; we brought the case in Federal Court. The police all lied on the stand and denied that anything happened. An all-white jury found for the officers in less than an hour. To this day when I see the judge who presided over that case, he lets me know that he knew what really happened that evening. So, I know what it feels to be degraded and humiliated for being a Black man walking home – but I was lucky – I didn’t get shot.

George Floyd’s death and the subsequent responses shows that this is an opportunity for us to listen to each other with minds and hearts more open than ever before. Perhaps it has also created an atmosphere and safe place where incidents thought buried in one’s past forever could be revealed without fear or shame or embarrassment. According to Macey, he shared his story with some of his partners – white partners – and the experience proved eye-opening, both for those partners and Macey. The white partners, for the first time perhaps, began to understand and appreciate why diversity and inclusion issues in the firm are so personal for Macey and why he is so passionate about them. And Macey discovered that not only were his partners open to hearing about his experience (one so far removed from their experiences), but that it allowed them all to feel like they were truly getting to know each other in a way they hadn’t ever before. The willingness to share and to listen can foster a greater understanding and deeper, more satisfying bond of collegiality, friendship, and partnership.

There’s no guarantee that this or a similar result would happen for everyone. But if it happened for more people within the profession, might we see a more impactful shift in support of the profession’s D&I efforts? Might we see more meaningful allyship? Could empathy – which includes listening – be the key to the legal profession’s diversity and inclusion challenges?

We think so. We know that like Macey, many lawyers of color have stories of their own to tell. Many are old, some are newer, while yet others are part of an ongoing series of incidents, but all of them include pain and illustrate the inequities and outright racism our profession needs to address if it is to have any hope of getting its own house in order. To share them requires a willingness to be open and expose vulnerability. Not everyone is willing or ready or able to do so. But, if you are someone who is, IILP invites you to send us your story for inclusion in IILP’s Empathy Project.

The Empathy Project intends to create as safe a space as possible by which lawyers of color can share their racialized experiences: as part of a larger group. We intend to publish them as part of a book or other written series: “The Empathy Project: Stories I Share for Others Like Me – The Experiences of Lawyers of Color” (working title). They may also become part of a video series or shared through other platforms.

Sharing is a step in putting the untold experiences of lawyers of color front and center during a time when more people are open to listening and educating themselves about racial issues. Hopefully, this will allow a wider group of people to understand the need for change and why it’s essential we ALL participate in making change happen. The idea behind The Empathy Project is that, during this time of unprecedented openness to listening and truly hearing about stories like Macey’s, our friends and colleagues who do not share the same race might begin to know us better and, by virtue of the knowledge, become the genuine allies and supporters we have, for so long, desired them to be.  We envision The Empathy Project as something that could be cathartic for lawyers of color, educational for white lawyers, and instructive and reaffirming for younger lawyers.

So, if you are a lawyer of color and have a story(ies) you’re open to sharing, please send them to by June 15, 2020. If you need us to publish your story anonymously, we’ll do that but also ask that you identify yourself to us. Questions?

Copyright 2013 - 2020 • The Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession • Privacy Policy
Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software