Fostering Diversity and Equity Through Legal Education

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Tuesday, November 30, 2021
By Robert Bird, Janine Hiller
Photo by iStock/utah778
Why it’s important to expose students to the complex and ever-changing interactions among business, law, and social change.

Can you name the disciplines taught in the modern business school today that also were taught at America’s first business school, then called the Wharton School of Finance and Economy at the University of Pennsylvania, in 1881? My guess is that your list was missing one subject: business law.

Business law has grown and evolved since 1881, and legal training has become an even more critical component to business success. Law is constantly changing, evolving, and responding to social forces. In fact, shifting regulation remains one of the top five business risks worldwide. It’s also one of three major challenges that CEOs say worries them the most.

The study of business law can help us all better understand not only the context for the social movements of today, but also the larger relationship among business, law, and society. Moreover, it can give organizations the tools they need to achieve their diversity, equity, and inclusion goals. In short, if our students are to thrive as leaders in an increasingly complex society, they must understand the rule of law.

In the last few years, we have seen powerful social forces, such as the #metoo movement and Black Lives Matter (BLM), begin to drive social change in society and in organizations. In response to these trends, legal studies faculty from four institutions have joined together to create a new online speaker series called Equity Now. These presentations are designed to prepare students, educators, and business leaders to navigate the complex and ever-changing regulatory landscape. They also show how knowing the law—both its ugly past and its lofty equality principles—can help us better understand this time in history.

How Legal Study Promotes DEI 

Long before #metoo and BLM, new laws were passed overturning legally enforced discrimination that had been in place for centuries. In 1963, the U.S. Congress passed the Equal Pay Act, which required women and men to be paid equally for equal work. One year later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited organizations from discriminating against people based on their race, color, religion, gender, and national origin. A series of court decisions in the 1970s and 1980s shaped the doctrine that prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace.

Similar legal mandates have been adopted in countries around the world, from the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act passed in 2000 in South Africa to the Age Discrimination Act passed in 2004 in Australia. Laws also have been passed that prohibit discrimination on the basis of age, disability, sexual orientation, and other criteria.

We can see from these and many other examples how the rule of law has been a driving force behind social change. With each new legislation, business leaders indifferent to diversity and equity at work have been faced with a stark choice: Either instill fair practices in the workplace or face costly litigation from employees who have been denied equal opportunity.

The rule of law has been a driving force behind social change. With each new legislation, business leaders have been faced with a stark choice: Instill fair practices or face costly litigation.

However, despite many successes, there is much left to do. The largest boardrooms and C-suites in the world are still disproportionately populated by white men. Women and persons of color still are not fully included in the modern workplace and are underrepresented in business education. It’s clear that organizations and business schools need to be changed from within. We believe the Equity Now series takes one step toward making that change a reality. 

A Simple Model for Learning

The series is based upon a simple model. Each year, we invite four prominent legal studies scholars to talk about their research. The speakers are chosen based upon their expertise in the subject area. To be highlighted in Equity Now, an expert’s research must meet two criteria: It must be both academic- and practice-oriented, and it must focus on current equity issues facing organizations and society.

The partner institutions that make the Equity Now series possible currently include the School of Business at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, the Pamplin College of Business at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University in Bloomington, and the Fox School of Business at Temple University in Philadelphia. This effort is also sponsored by the Academy of Legal Studies in Business, the international academic association of teachers and scholars of law in business schools.

Our partner institutions commit to providing networking and other logistical assistance as needed to create and promote these presentations. They also distribute information about the speaker series to their faculty, students, staff, and alumni networks. Each school designates a contact person, typically a professor of business law, who recommends speakers and themes for future events.

As the leader of this series, Robert Bird, a co-author of this article, helps organize, structure, and schedule the speaker presentations. Bird chooses several broad themes for each year’s series that are both relevant and timely, offering a framework for seeking input from colleagues at partner schools. Last year’s topics ranged from the protection of LGBTQ rights to the evolving legal environment for workers with disabilities. 

While the lectures are primarily intended to advance students’ knowledge, they also attract faculty, staff, alumni, and other business school stakeholders. These lectures are not academic presentations—we remind our guest lecturers to avoid unnecessary jargon or complexity. Instead, the lectures are intended to attract a wide audience. We want them to appeal not only to academics and students, but also to laypersons who may have general knowledge of the issues but would like to learn more from dedicated experts. 

Registration for the series is free and open to the public. These events are entirely virtual so that anyone can attend, regardless of geographical location.

In October, we kicked off this year’s series with a presentation by Goldburn Maynard, an assistant professor of business law and ethics at Indiana University. Maynard discussed the significant racial policy shift that occurred with the transition between the Trump and Biden administrations, as well as the potential of new policies to curtail decades of systemic discrimination. In early November, Leora Eisenstadt, an associate professor of legal studies at Temple University, explored the implications of sexual harassment and the #metoo movement, including recent efforts to use technology to detect and prevent harassment.

In spring 2022, Margaret Hu, professor of law and international affairs at Pennsylvania State University, will discuss how technology can threaten voting rights and disenfranchise underrepresented groups from the political process. This year’s series will wrap up next April with a presentation by Liz Brown, associate professor of law and taxation at Bentley University. Brown will delve into the legal and ethical implications of using software that focuses on women’s health in the workplace (also known as femtech), including its capacity for discrimination and invasion of privacy.

Integrating DEI in the Curriculum

We plan to continue the speaker series in the hope that more schools will join us in promoting and contributing to its content. We believe that resources such as the Equity Now series can be a way for schools to highlight DEI issues that matter most to the campus community. Sharing these perspectives also can play a role in achieving AACSB’s goal to advance diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in business schools worldwide. 

For that reason, we invite business schools to use Equity Now to complement their own curricula. Business schools can embrace the goals of the series in their own way, but it works best in the context of a rigorous program of legal education that embraces the importance of diversity and equity in the modern workplace.

Professors of business law can help students put social issues into context, delving into the historical background and discussing how organizations should respond.

For instance, core courses in law at many business schools—which often have titles such as The Legal Environment of Business—can track socially relevant and historic issues as new cases are decided and new laws are passed. Professors can help students put these issues into context, delving into the historical background and discussing how organizations should respond. Students also could attend an Equity Now lecture and then discuss its content in class the following day.

In addition, business schools can teach electives and case studies that specifically focus on BLM, #metoo, LGBTQ, and other social movements. Teaching these issues in the context of business law not only produces graduates with the skills and attitudes employers value, but also helps schools attract students who value diverse business programs.

Equity Is a Competitive Necessity

Embracing diversity is not only a matter of great social importance, but also one that has concrete benefits for organizations. A 2015 McKinsey study found that diverse companies perform up to 35 percent better than their less diverse counterparts. Revenues for products and services at firms with diverse management teams are 19 percent higher than they are at firms with less diverse leadership. This research shows that equitable practices that promote diversity are no longer just legally required—they are a competitive necessity for every modern organization.

We know that, even today, boardrooms and C-suites are criticized for being too male, pale, and stale. Similarly, business schools have not yet achieved full diversity within their ranks. We also know that fundamental change does not happen overnight, and that it often requires the rule of law to happen in the modern workplace at all.

That makes it even more critical for all business students to graduate with legal education. Only then will they be prepared to tackle the challenges of an increasingly diverse workforce and society—while staying on the right side of the law and moving us one step forward toward a just and equitable world.

Robert Bird
Eversource Energy Chair in Business Ethics and Professor of Business Law, School of Business, University of Connecticut
Janine Hiller
R.E. Sorensen Professor in Finance and Professor of Business Law, Pamplin College of Business, Virginia Tech
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