The lawyer as an inclusive leader

The lawyer as an inclusive leader

By Dr. Artika R. Tyner

Inclusive leaders are needed now more than ever. They can serve as lead problem solvers who address the social justice challenges facing our society. Currently, for instance, there is a call to leadership in the legal profession concerning the unmet legal needs of the poor and disenfranchised. The access to justice gap is evidenced by the fact that nearly 92 percent of the civil legal needs of low-income communities are not being met, according to the Legal Services Corporation’s annual Justice Gap Report. Furthermore, the same report went on to say: “Nearly three quarters (74%) of low-income households experienced at least one civil legal problem in the previous year.  A third (33%) of low-income Americans had at least one problem they attributed to the covid-19 pandemic.” Moreover, there is a need for additional lawyers in many jurisdictions: As noted in the ABA Profile of the Legal Profession, “nearly 1,300 counties in the U.S. had less than one lawyer per 1,000 residents.” 
This is a call to inclusive leadership where lawyers make a commitment to serve and lead in their community. The ABA Model Rules of Professional Rules of Conduct offers a guide for lawyers to take action: 

As a public citizen, a lawyer should seek improvement of the law, access to the legal system, the administration of justice and the quality of service rendered by the legal profession. 

In my latest book, The Inclusive Leader: Taking Intentional Action for Justice and Equity, I provide a pathway for lawyers to effect change by engaging in a process of self-reflection, grappling with unconscious biases, fostering innovation, and taking action for the betterment of society. 

Redefining leadership

Lawyers who embark on this leadership journey begin by redefining leadership. “Leadership” is traditionally defined according to one’s position in a hierarchy of power. This conception limits leadership to being only available for a select few, like a bar leader or firm shareholder. Research demonstrates the transformative power of defining leadership in terms that offer an invitation for everyone to have an impact within their respective spheres of influence.
Now is the time to redefine leadership by focusing on developing a collective vision of change. 

"A leader is a planter—a planter of ideas, seeds of change, and a vision for justice."

Inclusion emerges organically as a part of this vision. It involves a recognition that all human beings have the right to be valued, respected, and appreciated. Inclusive leadership is evidenced by leaders who embark on a lifelong learning journey to challenge their own biases, stereotypes, and prejudices. They recognize that diversity, equity, and inclusion are the foundation of business success, community engagement, and promoting the common good.

Leadership framework for action

This leaves one to ponder: How can lawyers take intentional action for justice and equity? Over the past decade, I have explored this question through my research. The culmination of my findings is encompassed in my Leadership Framework for Action.™ It provides four stages of learning. 

  • The intrapersonal level encourages engaging in self-discovery. This is where you explore your leadership story and the multifaceted dimensions of your own culture, heritage, and history. 
  • The interpersonal stage supports building authentic relationships with others. This activates inclusion in the workplace by creating a sense of belonging, honoring the dignity of each individual, and treating team members fairly. 
  • The organizational stage aids in establishing strategic outcomes and promoting equity in work environments.
  • The societal level provides vital tools for the development of sustainable, durable solutions.

"How can lawyers take intentional action for justice and equity? Over the past decade, I have explored this question through my research."

This article focuses primarily on the societal level. When engaging in societal reform, it is easy to get overwhelmed by the magnitude of the challenges. The image from the Breton fisherman’s prayer comes to mind: The sea is so wide, my boat is so small. However, your passion for social justice coupled with your leadership capabilities and connection with a team of other committed individuals can serve as your anchor for the leadership journey ahead. 
Here are a few ways you can take action:

  1. Find your passion. I found my passion to become an ambassador for diversity, equity, and inclusion when I traveled to Tanzania. I traveled to Africa to teach a study-abroad class on policymaking and leadership. I learned about the transformational power of Harambee. Harambee recognizes the importance of community engagement and servant leadership. It means let’s “all pull together” in Swahili. My passion for justice is informed by this principle of Harambee. Each day, I train, equip, and inspire students to pull together in the fight for education and criminal justice reform to better the lives of generations to come.
  2. Redefine leadership. When redefining leadership, the metaphor of the drum major instinct can serve as inspiration. Dr. King characterizes this leadership role as measuring greatness by one’s commitment to service. He stated, “[B]y giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.” There are many opportunities around us to serve and lead social change.
  3. Find a way to get involved. There is no better time than the present to take action. You can make a difference by, for example, joining the #FREEAMERICA campaign to end mass incarceration. Your advocacy can help break down barriers experienced by individuals with a criminal record and create meaningful second chances through employment and entrepreneurship. Or you might choose to adopt a school and volunteer to support literacy. You can make a difference in the lives of our youth by promoting healthy starts. Early reading and literacy support this process. When one in four children in America has not learned how to read; students who are not proficient with reading by fourth grade are four times more likely to drop out of school; and 85 percent of children in the juvenile justice system are not literate, there is a sense of urgency related to supporting your local schools. 
  4. Connect with others who share your passion areas and commitment to making a difference. The journey ahead will require a team effort. A group of committed individuals must come together and work in unity. Bar associations at the state, local, and national levels can serve as key conveners of these efforts.


You can commit today to serving as an inclusive leader. Define yourself as an innovator, builder, and change agent. Remember the words of civil rights leader Bayard Rustin: “The proof one truly believes is in action.” Your daily actions can aid in building a more just and inclusive society.
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Artika Tyner

Dr. Artika Tyner is a passionate educator, award-winning author, sought after speaker, DEI leader, and advocate for justice