Written by Omar Taleb
Omar Taleb is a Marketing Associate at the Legal Innovation Zone; he spoke to a few Black-identifying members of the LIZ for this post on Black entrepreneurs within the legal tech sector
I want to be clear – though the media coverage of the protests that erupted over the treatment of Black people within public and private institutions has been slowly dwindling, this national reckoning is far from over.
Hard conversations about systemic racism in the professional world are no longer avoidable. The new information economy that emerged in the shadow of the 2008-09 Financial Crisis is predicated on the idea that innovative thinking will always be rewarded. The startup ecosystem, this ecosystem of ingenuity, that the Legal Innovation Zone and other incubators operate in are not intentionally exclusionary; theoretically, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, as long as you have the willingness to be bold.
Except it does matter.
While not always obvious, systemic, anti-Black racism is ingrained in the so-called professional class; my colleague Debora Jesus, the Marketing Coordinator at the LIZ, put it bluntly: “if you’re too focused on sorting out essentials, like housing, you’re not in an ideal place to participate.”
When we talk about this form of racism, then, the discussion is about the ‘seat at the table’; it’s about the fact that centuries of inequality hold back Black people, and people from other equity-seeking groups – the same groups of people who simply “lack the head start that is assumed by others”, as Debora explained.
The Legal Innovation Zone was built with a few guiding principles, one of which was to disrupt the legal sector for the better, to “design a 21st Century justice system”. The legal technology sector is not known for diversity, and this simply goes back to the legal sector as a whole, in which, historically, only certain people of certain means were able to enter the field as professionals.
Looking at the LIZ itself, I wanted to engage with our members within the overall legal tech community. When asked about barriers that exist for Black people in this field, our community members echoed sentiments ranging from a deep-rooted lack of trust for people who look “different”, to the socioeconomic barriers that racialized people face.
Christien Levien, LIZ member and the co-founder of Legalswipe, noted that entrepreneurship itself is a precarious game to play, with large segments of the racialized population unable to “withstand the risk that comes with working in an emerging sector.” Coupled with the statistics indicating that Black and other POCs are less likely to receive support at the venture capital level, and suddenly the once-promising innovation economy appears as inaccessible as ever.
I asked Jason Mulongoo, Project Manager of the Family Law Portal at the LIZ, about where he feels the industry is heading in regards to diversity, and he reiterated that sweeping reform will be needed for change in the coming decade.
“The industry is slowly turning a new page but at a rate that will only see results in my grandkids’ lifetime,” he explained, adding that he’s “still wait[ing] to see law firms invest in youth programs and diversity opportunities as part of their vision.”
Debora noted that while “diversity on the frontlines is still not being reflected in the leadership of many organizations”, she’s optimistic that the data is making clear to companies the “benefits of diverse perspectives in decision-making.”
Posing the question to Debora, Christien, and Jason, I asked what advice they would give to their younger self entering the legal tech industry.
Networking and continuous learning was the overall theme, with Jason summarizing it as “learn[ing] small talk, your best version of an elevator pitch, and be[ing] ready to share value”. Noting the importance of mentorship, Christien advocated for having a trusted set of go-to advisors to assist in professional development, echoing Debora’s encouragement to prioritize a “growth mindset”.
When looking at dismantling systemic racism and the constructs that pose barriers to entry in industries that are built off innovation, the conversation doesn’t end with recognition. Legacy corporations and startup companies alike have been “recognizing” the importance of diversity for years, but power lies at the top of the pyramid, in which space needs to be consciously created for Black and other POCs; this is the long-overdue next step.
It took two decades into the 21st Century, but the illusion of a colour-blind meritocracy within the innovation economy has been shattered, and in its place the opportunity for meaningful, radical change.