A Voice of Change: E. Macey Russell Uses Empathy to Push Toward Equity

In accepting the Boston Bar Association’s Voice of Change Award, Macey Russell is making it his priority to inspire the event’s attendees to take action, much as he has done throughout his career.

Russell was barred in Massachusetts in 1983, at a divisive time in Boston’s history when the busing crisis was still raging. When he first started out, Russell rarely encountered other attorneys of color. It wasn’t until his third job as a lawyer that he had any African American colleagues. In that office, Russell recognized the power of sharing professional experiences with attorneys that came from a similar background as he did.

Russell recognized that by climbing the professional ladder at the firms where he worked, he was opening doors for younger attorneys of color and proving by his example that black lawyers belong in leadership positions. Eventually, he began to seek out affinity groups with a similar focus, recognizing that he could play a part in having an even larger impact through collaboration.

Russell has been an advisory board member of the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession, a think-tank based in Chicago, and was a co-chair of the BBA’s Diversity & Inclusion Section. At the BBA, Russell had an opportunity to test theories about how best to advance the cause. Russell supported the formation of BBA Judicial Internship program with Superior Court Justice Robert Tochka. The BBA also hosted programs designed to familiarize minority associates with specific industries and give them the tools to strengthen their business development within their firms. As chair of the Judicial Nominating Commission, Russell worked with the BBA to host forums on how to become a judge, and actively encouraged minority attorneys to apply. He has also supported the Massachusetts Black Lawyers Association in varying capacities over the years, and is a past board member.

After years of exploring ways to get leaders of the legal profession actively interested in solutions to bridge the diversity gap in law, Russell has found that telling stories and searching for “empathy triggers” is important. In his experience, the best way to get people to begin to focus on the similarities between them, rather than what makes them different, is to encourage them to identify with one another.

“You never know what you might say that will cause someone listening to begin to think about something a different way. It may not be obvious right away who’s mind you are opening. But giving people a window to see things from your perspective may give them something they’ll take with them into the rest of their personal and professional lives,” he said.

Russell also frequently speaks about concrete steps toward a more equitable profession. While he is encouraged by the larger number of diverse attorneys compared to when he started out, Russell is driving a discussion about the “transfer of wealth and power” to a greater portion of minority lawyers and women. He commended firms that are embracing more thorough diversity metrics and improving the balance of firm business going to more diverse teams of attorneys.

“Without that shift, it’s never truly going to be an even playing field,” Russell said. “Things have come a long way as evidenced by our willingness to talk openly and more forcefully about tough issues, but we still have a ways to go before everyone is all-in.”

A Choate partner of over 16 years, Russell is a past chair and active member of the firm’s diversity committee. But his efforts to build a more welcoming and inclusive legal profession for minority attorneys have branched far outside the firm over the years. Russell speaks at events and conferences all over the country on the subject of increasing the number of attorneys of color entering the profession, and appropriately leveraging their unique skills and perspectives once they are hired by a firm or legal department.

The Burton Foundation and Library of Congress honored Mr. Russell with a 2011 Burton Award for excellence in legal writing for his co-authored article Developing Great Minority Lawyers for the Next Generation.  He has authored numerous published articles on diversity and inclusion in the legal profession for the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession, Association of Corporate Counsel Magazine, Defense Research Institute, and Practicing Law Institute. He has made over 30 presentations and lectures on diversity and inclusion, including diversity symposiums at the corporate headquarters for Bank of America, Starbucks, Procter and Gamble, HSBC, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, and AT&T, and at SIFMA, Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association.

“I believe as a profession, we need to figure out how we value the different strengths and contributions that diverse people bring. I look forward to the Beacon Award ceremony as an opportunity to amplify that message and encourage others to step up and be heard on issues of diversity and inclusion,” Russell said.

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