The Theory and Practice of Workplace Equity seminar is both an unusual and highly practical offering for students who want to think creatively about what it means to be a lawyer and how lawyers work in the world. A central feature of the course is that students do field research. Each student examines a particular company, nonprofit organization, or governmental body, with a mission to understand what processes are in place to curtail discrimination and promote inclusive workplaces, and which of these processes are most likely to be effective. In a sense, the students serve as organizational consultants. Professor Susan Sturm, a leading expert in issues of workplace diversity and eliminating discrimination, says, "It is an opportunity to link academic work with professional aspirations and passions."
Professor Susan Sturm
The seminar explores complex forms of bias, inequality, exclusion, and under-participation in the workplace, as well as various ways that the law intersects with, and addresses, these problems. Strikingly, it looks not only at obvious examples of bias but at those that are more subtle, relating to how an organization is set up, how people operate in groups, and the role of unconscious bias. Students grapple with very tough problems and learn to collaborate with experts in other professions.
Student projects have addressed issues as wide ranging as how schools can still diversify when affirmative action is curtailed, work conditions for erotic dancers, and how one community-development project brought underutilized people into the workplace. One student took her research to Switzerland, where she looked at the anti-discrimination policies of the pharmaceutical firm Novartis. She published her case study for the Global Compact Office of the United Nations, and is now working there.
"The question of how to look at an institution, how to frame its problems, and how to connect the role of law and lawyers to addressing those complex problems, is not often taught in law schools," says Prof. Sturm. "This is true not only of race and gender equity but across many areas in which one might use the law to effect institutional transformation.
The seminar is an opportunity for students to identify an issue they really care about and to develop the interdisciplinary understanding and research skills that help them develop a really cutting-edge framework."
The course relies heavily on the students themselves, who, in addition to conducting field research, prepare and co-teach the class. Each student signs up to teach two sessions, working with the professor to develop a lesson plan. Complementing these sessions are brainstorming sessions in which professionals from a variety of disciplines address where and how the law and lawyers fit into their work.