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Law Firm DEI through the lens of Belonging

Practicing Belonging: Be clear about your Firm’s standards and evenhanded in applying them.

Coffee with Shomari Benton

Shomari Benton and I met up over morning coffee at Café Corazón. Shomari is a real estate and development lawyer and also an entrepreneurial property redeveloper focused on Kansas City’s urban core. He is a young Gen Xer, and he and his wife are newlyweds. And behind his resonant voice and engaging laugh, Shomari brings a certain intensity, especially in his passion for urban planning and the built environment of cities.

Shomari says his life does not fit the stereotype of a young Black man overcoming adversity to “rise” to a legal career – he had a middle/upper class upbringing in Kansas City and Lee’s Summit, Missouri. Yet no one’s life is without challenges. Each of his parents had chronic, severe health conditions, and each passed away too early.

High school for Shomari was Rockhurst, a Catholic, all boys school in Kansas City. Shomari didn’t like it at first. He was used to attending predominantly White schools, so that wasn’t it – he laughs that as a freshman, the initial “problem” simply was no girls. By junior year Shomari liked Rockhurst a lot, particularly the academic rigor, the religion context, and the athletics, including football and track & field.

Shomari was a college athlete, first at Wheeling Jesuit University (West Virginia) and Jacksonville University (Florida), and then at the University of Missouri. He also became intrigued by the interplay of urban planning and politics, which led him to an undergraduate degree in political science and then to law school at MU.

After law school, Shomari worked on city planning at the City Attorney’s Office in Springfield, Missouri. He next spent several years in the Kansas City offices of two large law firms, in real estate and environmental law practice. And then, in 2012, Shomari and two colleagues decided to leave their large firms and form a new, minority-owned law firm, Benton Lloyd & Chung LLP, representing clients in real estate, development, and business law matters.  

Practicing Belonging:

Shomari appreciates his years of experience working at large law firms, where he excelled. Yet he feels there were times when he was treated differently regarding what Shomari describes as the “culture of leniency,” meaning who receives the benefit of the doubt in a given situation. He was left with the impression that the culture of leniency plays out differently for some White lawyers in a predominantly White firm. Shomari thinks this can be unintentional, and that it may turn upon the extent to which White partners can “see themselves” in their newer lawyers.

Shomari stresses that any law firm gets to decide for itself how strict or lenient it will be in its expectations for its lawyers. Consistency is the key for Shomari – the more clear and transparent the expectations, and the more evenhandedly and transparently applied, the better for both the law firm itself and the lawyers concerned.

As I listened to Shomari describe the “culture of leniency,” I was also prompted to consider its cousin, the culture of leadership secrecy or discretion. Law firm partners may think that firm decisions can be made “discreetly,” but the fact of the matter is that everyone can see, and everyone is watching … especially the Firm’s associates. And if a law firm is not reasonably transparent about the what and why of such decisions, it leaves a vacuum to be filled by the speculation of those not at the table.

In this blog, Belonging means the reciprocal sense of being needed and valued as part of something greater than ourselves. Belonging also factors in social identity and the use of power. When law firms set expectations for their lawyers and apply them in a host of different situations, that’s the use of power, and appropriately so. But often, the appropriateness of such decisions is in the eye of the beholder. And that’s where social identity is important, because different lived experiences can result in different perspectives on law firm decisions, especially if the Firm’s decisions and actions are opaque and unexplained.

There’s of course a balance to be struck here. But I took Shomari’s point to be that, in law firms with lawyers of different lived experiences, it’s important to go the extra mile in clarity and consistency about expectations for the Firm’s lawyers. Being clear about expectations, and consistent and transparent in applying them, sends a powerful message that the Firm respects, needs, and values all of its lawyers. In other words, it sends a clear message that the Firm’s lawyers Belong.