CAREERS PODCASTS


RITU BHASIN
Author and Speaker on Leadership and Diversity
bhasin consulting inc.

You’re interviewing for the next important step in your career, and you’re wondering how much of yourself to bring to the table. One of the leading thinkers on diversity in the legal profession, Ritu gives her take on why authenticity is key, and how to become aware of our unconscious biases.

Ritu Bhasin

Listen on Apple
Listen on Google
Listen on Spotify

Resources

Ritu’s Website

bhasin consulting

The Authenticity Principle

Show Notes

Mitch:

Hi, this is Mitch, and I’m thrilled to have as our guest today, on the Orrick podcast, Ritu Bhasin, who is one of the most innovative thinkers globally about leadership and diversity in the legal profession. I was fortunate enough to have met Ritu in April in Amsterdam, where she was the keynote speaker at our global retreat in the finance practice, and I am delighted that you have agreed to come back and talk with us some more. So, Ritu, welcome.

Ritu:

Thanks so much, Mitch. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Mitch:

Could you share a little bit about your background, Ritu, both your experience growing up and a little bit about your experience with the law?

Ritu:

I should start by saying I am Canadian, and it’s important for me to say this because you will probably pick it up anyhow—when you hear me say “out and about” as I’m sharing today. I am Canadian but I was born of Indian immigrant parents, so my parents immigrated to Canada from India 45 years ago. We’re Punjabi and we’re Sikh—and when I say Sikh, that’s my faith. I am a Sikh. It’s spelled S-I-K-H, pronounced “sick” not “seek”. My father wears a turban. That is a marker of my faith, for example. And growing up, we grew up in Toronto proper, like in the city—a really working-class upbringing, a really quintessential immigrant experience in our household. When I was a bit older, becoming a teenager, my parents made the decision to move us outside of the city to a town that was more homogeneous. And so I went from growing up in a multicultural area of Toronto to a really homogeneous, very affluent white neighborhood. It was a financial stretch for my parents to move us there, and I experienced years of bullying—and it was racist bullying in particular. That was really difficult and scarring in many respects. But the reason I share this is because it was, as a teenager, navigating to my own experiences with racism and other forms of oppression that I decided I wanted to become a lawyer to fight on behalf of the people who didn’t have a voice or felt voiceless. And I also experienced the feeling of being “othered.” These two experiences in particular were formative in my career development. I eventually became a lawyer, and I practiced as the litigator for a few years before transitioning into becoming the Director of Legal Talent at a large, preeminent international law firm but based in Toronto. And I did HR, essentially, on the lawyer side for seven years, and then it was eight years ago that I launched my consulting practice. I now work globally with a range of clients, but I spend a lot of time working with global, national, regional firms—in the U.S. in particular, and around the world—on issues around diversity and inclusion. And part of my work over the last several years—I decided to share my ideas in a book. And I wrote a book last year called The Authenticity Principle which is essentially about how—in a society and a world where we constantly feel the push to conform and change who we are—can we say, “No, I’m not going to change who I am for your benefit. I’m going to do me and be me and be myself and live my authentic self.” And so The Authenticity Principle is all about teaching people who have felt “othered,” but want to succeed in organizations where they feel that they can’t be themselves—to teach them about the tools on how to be authentic. And I also wrote the book for leaders who want to be more effective in creating organizations that are more authentic and are more inclusive—about how to use their power and privilege to make that happen.

Mitch:

Ritu, thank you so much for sharing that part of your background. I would just note, for our listeners, that not only have you been widely heralded for your work—you have won all kinds of awards both from the Canadian government and from many other organizations—but you are a constant contributor in the media on these topics. And I really appreciate sharing your background. And one of the things we’ve learned about you is that you shared with us that you think that there’s an idea that all of us have a filing cabinet of preconceptions about people who are different about from us. And that it’s important that we open that cabinet and understand what’s inside. Can you talk a little bit more about that and what you mean by it—and why you think it’s important?

Ritu:

So I love this idea of the filing cabinet because it really helps to illuminate what happens for us in our brain tying back to bias. And so bias, simply put, is the mental shortcut that our brain takes in decision-making. And we have multiple biases, so we are taking multiple shortcuts throughout the day in decision-making—so that the brain is operating efficiently and steadily, keeping us safe from harm. And what we are trying to do at identifying our biases and unearthing our biases is interrupting and replacing what we have in our filing cabinets. So let me just talk to you about this concept of bias and, more specifically, unconscious bias. There are two primary things that our brains do as it relates to engaging in biases. In fact, let me say that if you have a brain, you have bias. Like every single one of us is wired to do this and socialized to do this. We—first of all we gravitate towards sameness. It’s called homophily or likeness bias. We are actually wired to move towards people who look like us and sound like us because the reptilian brain says to us that people who look like us and sound like us are going to be nonthreatening. And so this why we are cautious and apprehensive, unconsciously, when we are interacting with people who don’t look like us and sound like us, when we don’t know them. That’s the first thing the brain does. The other thing the brain does is that filing cabinet thing that you have asked me about. So, picture if you will, that in our brain we have dozens and dozens of filing cabinets and on each filing cabinet there’s a label. Labels like partner, law firm partner, CEO, associate, staff member, white person, black person, Muslim person, pregnant woman, evil, delinquent, drug addict, nice, beautiful, smart, kind, and more. And what happens is all day long as we are meeting people and interacting with people through our senses; we are absorbing messages and meaning connected back to people and their cultural identities. And so when we are trying to interrupt our unconscious biases, what we are really doing is trying to figure out, “What do I hold in my filing cabinet about people tied back to their cultural identities, and how do I replace any negative or incorrect or stereotypical, misunderstanding information or data that I have in my brain, in those filing cabinets, about someone’s cultural identity?” And the filing cabinet analogy, pausing to think about, “What do I hold in my brain, in my filing cabinet, about this person?” is a really important exercise to engage in.

Mitch:

That is incredibly helpful. What advice do you have specifically for diverse lawyers? How can they both be authentic and successful, and what must organizations do to create an environment in which they can thrive?

Ritu:

So let’s go back to bias and talking about what happens with bias. There are three things that we do when our brains take mental shortcuts in decision-making as it relates to how we treat other people, but also how we treat ourselves. The first thing is—that we do is—that we dish it out. And so I talked to you already about how the brain sorts people and identifies people based on what we hold in our filing cabinet and we gravitate towards sameness. It’s the foundational problem. The fact that we are all judging people and, based on our judgment, adversely treating people is the foundational root issue. But there are two other things that happen with bias that are really important, especially in the context of talking about diverse lawyers. The second thing that we do that happens with biases is, because we’re all dishing it out, everyone is engaging in biases towards others. It’s not surprising then that we are also, secondly, on the receiving end of it. The second thing that happens with bias is that we receive it. Other people judge us. Their judgement, their bias, comes our way. What I know from my own work and research in this space is that it’s the fear of judgement, it’s the fear of biases, that causes us to change who we are to push down our differences, to minimize aspects of our identity so that we can shield against bias. And we know that when you are on the heightened end of receiving biases. So for example, women, people of color, people from the LGBTQ community, persons with disabilities and more. When more bias is coming your way, you’re more likely, then, to want to shield against that bias. And in wanting to do so, for a lot of us that means changing who we are, masking aspects of our identity. So, in other words, being on the receiving end of bias causes to repress our authenticity. And then the third thing that happens with bias is that we internalize it. And we do this unconsciously, mostly, but some of us even consciously, which means that we come to believe the negative messaging coming our way about who we are and more importantly come to believe negative messaging about our differences. And so my message for diverse lawyers is to really think about what biases are you on the receiving end of—like how do you think you are being judged? What are the negative messages that people are sending your way? And then to really mindfully and intentionally think about how you are changing your behavior because of that. So where are you starting to change and alter your behavior to mask aspects of your identity? And it feels really crappy to do that because we know from the research that when we can’t be who we are and we feel vilified for being different—it makes—we feel humiliated. We feel disempowered. It literally knocks the wind out of our sails. Where is this happening for you? And, more specifically, how can you stop yourself from doing that going forward? How can you live more authentically? The second piece of that is also to figure out where are some of the negative narratives. The negative self-talk that the gremlin in the brain—the voice that says to us, “Don’t do that, don’t speak, don’t say that because you are just an ‘x,’” and insert into x whatever the identity is where you feel marginalized. Figure out where that is happening too. And what you can do is actually reframe—rewire your brain to interrupt negative narrative using positive narratives. And I talk a lot about this, actually, in my book.

Mitch:

Fantastic. As we approach the law school recruiting season here, we are going to have many conversations about difference and the cross-difference. And candidates and interviewers will come to us from different backgrounds. How can we position ourselves to make those conversations most successful? What advice would you have for us, Ritu?

Ritu:

Yes, I love this question. And actually, let me kick off with this short story. A law student, recently, I was having coffee with her. She asked me for some advice, and she said, “I transferred from one law school to another law school. I did it because one of my family members was having health issues and I wanted to be close to my family. My career services, when I asked them about how I should explain this to my interview, told me that I should tell the law firm that I did this because I wanted to focus more on business law, and the second school I transferred was more business-focused. And so this is what I have been doing in my mock interviews and, actually, I did it when I was interviewing for a 1L position and it was unsuccessful. And what do you think about this response?” And I was horrified, actually, because, first of all, it was not the truth and, second of all, I know from my work that, when we don’t share authentically in our answers to questions, people can smell that. They smell it unconsciously, consciously—our body omits non-verbal communications. It’s like we can read it a mile away. And in fact what I told her is the opposite from what the career services team told her. I said, “You must tell people the truth because it makes you a person and it makes you more human.” And so, for any candidates who might be listening to the podcast, I strongly encourage you to share your personal stories and be authentic because firms are looking for people who are actually people. They want to hire people who they like and they can connect with and can see themselves working with. And the more of an automaton you are during your interview, the less likely they are to see you as a person that they can actually picture themselves—if their actual brains; let’s go back to bias—to picture themselves working with you. But the same thing is true for your interviewers within the firm. Candidates want to work with real people and they want to feel like they, in coming to your firm, will experience belonging. And they will know they can experience belonging the more interviewers share authentically about how they experience working at the firm, but also what their differences are. The reason this is so important is because when an interviewer in particular—and I personally have done extensive interviewing. I literally have interviewed thousands of candidates because, when I was a legal talent director, recruitment was part of my job. When we as an interviewer let down our guard, be more personable, be more personal, share authentically, we invite vulnerability into the room. We invite authenticity into the room. We invite the candidate we’re sharing with to mirror back to us what—the spirit that we’re sharing. And, in fact, in being more personal and being more authentic and sharing our differences, we will actually disarm the interaction and will signal to the person, “I’m being me. You be you, too, because this is exactly how we roll at Orrick.” And in doing so, when someone feels more relaxed—which they will feel if they feel they can be who they really are—it moves them out of fight or flight, which they will likely be in. Fight, flight or freeze during interview setting and you will actually get better answers from them. They actually will respond to interview questions far more effectively if they feel more relaxed, and that will happen when you are more relaxed yourself and more personal and authentic. It’s so critical for people on the front lines of recruitment coming into this process to really focus on this personal side—sharing that personal side.

Mitch:

Thank you so much for sharing that. I would just emphasize that since we are really looking to get evidence of both grit and emotional intelligence as part of the criteria for hiring, your advice is so spot-on in terms of what we would hope to glean from candidates that’s it’s just incredibly helpful. If I could change tacks, however, I know that one of your passions, Ritu, has been the principles of yoga and mindfulness and leadership theory, and drawing on those principles to help lawyers to grow professionally and personally. It’s an area that we are trying to focus on as well—including through a series of mindfulness workshops that we have introduced into our offices—and I would love to hear more about your work in this area and any advice you would have for any of our listeners.

Ritu:

On a personal note, let me just say mindfulness has been like an anchor in my life, especially over the last several years, in helping me live better and thrive and navigate through tough, difficult times in life because life is both beautiful and hard at the same time. And when I’m talking about mindfulness, I think a lot of us picture wearing our lululemons and sitting cross-legged in lotus positions with sitar music playing in the background and incense burning and doing alternate-nostril breathing. And I often will joke and say that’s definitely one form of mindfulness. But I’m just talking about present awareness—what we are thinking, feeling and sensing in a nonjudgmental way. And that focus for me personally, and really checking in moment-to-moment, has been so helpful in living and working better. When we have presence of awareness of how we are thinking, feeling and sensing in a moment—in any given moment—really what we are doing is focusing on, “What is happening in my body and what am I telling myself in this moment to myself about how I’m feeling and how I’m thinking?” And one of the most powerful things mindfulness does is it helps us capture “the voice.” It’s that voice that’s saying to us, “Don’t speak, you’re not good enough, you’re not ready, you’re going to sound stupid,” or it’s the self-blocking voice. “Oh my God, look you just said that, you’re so stupid, you’re not good enough. What are they going to think?” That negative self-talk—that gremlin voice that is going all the time—a lot of us don’t even hear it. The other thing that the voice is doing—the gremlin that we don’t hear—the gremlin—the voice is making judgements about others. “Oh, she’s so incompetent, she’s not worthy, she’s not good enough, he’s not ready.” Whatever. And mindfulness helps us to tune into the voice so that not only can we hear whatever negative thing is that we are saying about our self to our self, but it helps us to hear our biases that we are directing towards others. So I am now saying in my teaching that, if you want to be inclusive, you must be mindful because, if you don’t have present awareness of what you are thinking and feeling and sensing, you’re not going to be able to hear the voice in the head that is either self-flogging or self-hating or engaging in biases. And mindfulness is essential for being empowered, and being inclusive, and more. The last thing I’ll mention about mindfulness—because I often get some people say, “Okay, Ritu, I understand why mindfulness is important, but where do I even start?” The most important bucket of mindfulness—or the most important tool or practice in mindfulness that is helpful—it’s also the easiest thing to fix and work on—is the breath. It is learning how to breathe properly. And here’s what’s so interesting. Most of us think, “Well, obviously I know how to breathe because I breathe all day. Otherwise I would be dead.” Most of us don’t breathe properly, and it’s because we take short, shallow, chest-based breaths as opposed to taking deep, belly-or diaphragm-based breaths. Learning how to breathe will be transformative in your life, but especially as it ties back to mindfulness.

Mitch:

Awesome. Thank you so much Ritu. I cannot thank you more for your spending time with us and for all that you’re doing—not only for us, but, obviously for the profession more broadly. Thank you so much. Really appreciate it.