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Law Firm DEI through the lens of Belonging

Practicing Belonging:  Don’t assume that everyone thinks the same – engage with people, be flexible, and build your firm culture around the people you have.

Coffee with Dan Cranshaw
March 27, 2024

I met Dan Cranshaw for coffee and breakfast at Billie’s Grocery.  If you know Dan, you understand he is extraordinary – a wise soul, a people-person, and a connector, with a gregarious, positive attitude and a candid, “call it what it is” sense of humor.  Dan is a late Boomer/early Gen Xer, Black, and the father of a son in his 20’s and a daughter in high school. 

Dan spent 20 years practicing law at large, Midwest-centered law firms (first as an associate and partner at Lathrop Gage, and then as a shareholder at Polsinelli).  Throughout, his law practice was commercial litigation.  In 2023, Dan changed career gears to become the Executive Director of the KC Health Collaborative, which fosters healthcare innovation and transformation to improve health equity and regional health outcomes.

Dan grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts in an urban, working class neighborhood.  He was raised by his mother and grandmother, and because each of them worked several jobs, Dan often looked after his three younger siblings.

Ever since he was eight years old, Dan wanted to be a lawyer.  He also aspired to go to an Ivy League school (ironically, he thought so in his childhood while living at 50 Princeton Street).  He remembers understanding that, in the early 80s, “young Black men in Springfield, Mass. were more likely to be dead than in college.”  During high school Dan was recruited to attend Deerfield Academy, where he boarded for three years as one of only a dozen Black students among the 600 boys enrolled.  Dan then graduated from Princeton University, with some time off to serve as a Senate intern in Washington D.C.

After ten years working in Education (recruiting students and coaching football and wrestling at Deerfield Academy, teaching and coaching at the Belmont Hill School, and then running the Philadelphia office of the non-profit Steppingstone Scholars Program), Dan moved to Kansas City, Missouri and went to law school at the University of Kansas.  1L and 2L clerkships led to an associate offer at Lathrop Gage, where Dan began practicing law in 2003.

Practicing Belonging:

Dan shared that, as a Black man in White spaces, “the blessing and curse of being a Lonely Only is that you learn how to be a Lonely Only.”  He found that his Ivy League credentials were a magic ticket for him to be taken seriously by firm management, which was predominantly male and White.  Each of his law firms enabled and empowered Dan early in his career to assert leadership on diversity and inclusion initiatives – for some that would be an unfair imposition, but Dan relished the opportunity.  And, with his personality, Dan was able to talk directly and frankly, even while an associate, with his firm’s senior management on DEI issues, problems, and opportunities.  

Dan also had the interpersonal skills to “hang-out” with clients and build direct client relationships, and his first law firm gave him the flexibility to do so as an associate, earlier than other lawyers.  These relationships were valuable for both the firm and for Dan.  

His law firms also allowed him, early on, to become deeply and broadly involved on civic and non-profit boards, which he has valued both personally and for professional connections.  There was inevitably some tension between the traditional law firm myopic focus on billable hours and utilization measures in the short term and Dan’s interest in building civic relationships that are invaluable over the long term.  But by and large, Dan appreciates the elbow-room his firms provided.

Dan also remembers times when his law partners stepped up in the face of micro (or not so micro)-aggressions aimed at him.  Once, as an associate, Dan was the only person pulled aside at a court security checkpoint, after his White lawyer peers sailed right through.  Another time, at a large case mediation, the opposing lawyer looked right at Dan and announced that “only clients and their lawyers” were allowed to attend.  It was satisfying to Dan for his White law partners to witness these incidents up close, in a “walk a mile in my shoes” way.  And he appreciated his White colleagues also speaking out in the moment.  Yet Dan’s attitude remains “if I’m going to get upset about every micro-aggression, then I’m not going to get anything done.” 

Dan’s advice to law firms on practicing Belonging is that flexibility is the key to helping different lawyers feel that they truly belong at the firm: 

Don’t assume that everyone is thinking the same.  Engage with folks.  Learn about them.  What brought them to the practice of law?  What motivates them about the practice?  What do they need to be successful?  Listen to them, and go from there, so that you are building the firm’s culture around the people you have.