The Importance of Allyship in the Legal Profession

August 13, 2021
President’s Message By Joseph R. Williams

The Values Statement of the Allegheny County Bar Association directs us to “be an invaluable resource to the legal profession and the community by:

  • Fostering a culture of unbiased collegiality, ethics and professionalism;
  • Championing equality, diversity and inclusion in the profession;
  • Promoting equal access to legal and other law related services; and
  • Enhancing the success of our members through education, networking, leadership and professional development.”

In order to effectively uphold these values, it is important for us to consider that our individual life experiences are often quite different than our fellow members, our clients, and other members of our community. As lawyers, we are expected to advocate for what is “right” and to bring about societal change. But how can we do this if we do not fully appreciate the points of view of those we are serving?

During my first public remarks to the Association members on July 7, 2021, I told you that as President I would be an ally to underrepresented groups in our profession and I asked each of you to join me. By now, we have all likely heard the term ally, but do we know what it really means? A simple internet search generates hundreds of definitions of the term ally, most of which center around the principle that an ally is a person or group that provides assistance and support in an ongoing effort, activity or struggle.

In my personal journey, the most important lesson that I have learned is that being an ally is a goal – something to which we strive – that requires me to challenge my own beliefs and recognize the experiences of those around me. It is not the ally’s opportunity to tell someone else how that person should feel or to justify his or her own beliefs. Being an ally is about listening, supporting and empathizing. Being an ally does not necessarily mean that you fully understand what it feels like to be a member of the underrepresented group. It does mean, however, that you are willing to take on their struggles as your own.

Is being an ally the same as being a mentor? No. With mentorship, the mentor leads the way, guiding the mentee down a path. With allyship, the path is walked together, side-by-side. Although mentors are also critical to the success of our profession, it is important to keep in mind that these are two distinct concepts. Being an ally does not mean that you will speak for others; it means that you will amplify the voices of others.

Who can be an ally? Well, anyone has the potential to be an ally. But it is more than just announcing your title or declaring it on paper or on social media. To be an ally, you must recognize your own implicit biases, identify the challenges and oppression faced by another group of people, and be willing to take steps to educate yourself and others. As an ally, you must not expect to be taught; you should use the tools available to you to learn on your own. Along the way, you might make mistakes. That is okay, so long as you remain committed to your own personal journey of doing better.

As the President of the ACBA, why am I asking you to be an ally? Plain and simple, I do not see how any of us can uphold our obligations to the Values Statement of the Association without being an ally. To embrace those values requires you to be an ally.

Unlike some of our other obligations, there is no way to mark your calendar for the part of the week when it is time to be an ally. You must be an ally each and every day. 

The ACBA has many of the resources you will need. Our Homer S. Brown Division and Women in the Law Division facilitate nationally recognized programs. We are also lucky to have the good work of groups like the Committee for Diversity and Inclusion, the Asian Attorneys Committee, the Hispanic Attorneys Committee, the LGBT Rights Committee, the YLD Diversity Committee and the Committee on Law and Disability as well as other committees, divisions and sections. As we return to in-person events and meetings, there is no better time than the present to support your colleagues and make new connections. I look forward to seeing you there. We are all in this together.