The future looks optimistic, but minority grads must be better prepared to compete in the legal marketplace
Joan M. Haratani
"I would hate to see doors closed because [law students] had set the bar lower than necessary."
With news of a booming market and skyrocketing first year salaries at law firms across the nation, many law students might feel more confident that the world is truly their oyster. But can students of color fare well in this dynamic legal economy?
Many seasoned lawyers of color definitely think so, but caution that such students should nevertheless have exceptional credentials to take full advantage of this new hiring trend. "Students need to utilize anything they can to get to the starting line," said Joan M. Haratani, a director at the Oakland office of Crosby, Heafy, Roach & May. Haratani, who is also the Chairperson of Crosby Heafy's Diversity Committee indicated that "whether it is outstanding work experience, a technical degree or outstanding law school grades, today's market is very competitive and to some extent it remains a buyers market."
Sherry D. Williams, a fifth year commercial litigation and employment law associate at the Miami office of Kirkpatrick & Lockhart, LLP, agrees. "Students of color, more than other students should focus a great deal of their energy on credentials, especially when seeking employment at large firms," Williams said. "It is a rare occasion that such organizations look below the top 1/3rd of the class for associates. Also, in order to get respect for your work and to be judged, at least theoretically, in the same way as your peers, you cannot be perceived as a person that does not have a 'right' to be in the position."
Haratani stressed that students should "do what they can to make their resume attractive to a big law firm" and not short-change themselves early on in their legal careers. "Once you are there, you can opt out of it, but you can't opt into it so easily. Students should raise the bar for themselves personally, because at the end of the day, when they graduate they will have more opportunities," Haratani said. "I would hate to see doors closed because [law students] had set the bar lower than necessary."
Both Haratani and Williams stressed that mentoring has been an important factor in their legal careers.
"Mentoring is 110% important," noted Haratani. "I wanted to quit after my first, second, and third year [at my firm], and now I have been practicing for sixteen years." Haratani indicated that the "single difference" in her decision to remain at the firm was her mentor, a woman who told her that she had to commit to a career at the firm for at least three years before making an informed decision as to whether or not she wanted to leave. "At the end of that time, I felt comfortable enough in my abilities as a competent lawyer and got in sync with the firm." Haratani also stressed that law students of color should focus on finding a mentor who is successful and be open to being mentored by someone who does not share their particular background. Indeed, Haratani's mentor was a white woman who was a lesbian. "The bottom line is that students should develop a professional bond with someone successful," Haratani said, "and [in a large firm] chances are that person may not be a person of color because there are not enough of them out there. Personality, trust, and respect are most important."
Sherry D. Williams
"Students of color, more than other students, should focus a great deal of their energy on credentials, especially when seeking employment at large firms."
Williams also agreed that "mentoring is very important" and noted that her firm, which employs 560 attorneys, is currently instituting a formal firm-wide mentoring program. Williams pointed out that sometimes there are situations where associates of color may fall through the cracks because the firm has not paid attention to the particular needs of minority associates within the firm wide culture. "Unless an associate of color has an ally in the firm, someone who has made a commitment to bring them along, they just do not make it in large organizations," Williams said.
Williams advises law students of color to directly inquire about a prospective firm's position on mentoring and whether there is a formal program during the interviewing process. Williams also noted that "for the purpose of mediating the 'political' aspect of big firm life, find a mentor outside of your organization to ask the tough questions that you may be uncomfortable discussing with members of your own firm." Law students should also take note of the firm's efforts to ensure that its associates are successful. Kirkpatrick & Lockhart recently instituted an Annual Symposium on Associate Life, which addressed issues such as compensation, retention, minority recruitment, and partner and associate diversity among other things. Williams noted that "within the two months after the conference, some significant changes have been initiated which were suggested at the symposium."
At Crosby Heafy, associates are encouraged to get actively involved in local bar association activities, and the firm is supportive of those endeavors, Haratani said. Haratani is also president-elect of the Asian American Bar Association of the Greater Bay Area. Additionally, Crosby Heafy is a signatory to the San Francisco Bar Association's Goals and Timetables for the Retention and Advancement of Minorities, and currently employs eight minority partners (10% of the partners), 11 minority associates (16%), one minority senior counsel, 16 women partners (17%), and 40 women associates (48%).
Haratani advises that students adequately prepare for their interviews by attending interview preparation workshops held at their schools or local bar associations, and that students practice interviewing techniques with friends and family members or on video.
The importance of doing one's homework in trying to decide whether or not a firm is a suitable place to begin one's career cannot be overstated. Haratani advised students to avoid asking about topics such as pro bono work, unless they are straight A students. "You don't want to be pegged as a one-issue person or as having a chip on your shoulder." Haratani noted that this is an area where common sense should reign and students should pay close attention to the interviewer's body language. "You want them to be your friend," Haratani said. "Remember, they are putting themselves on the line because they called you back [for the interview]. If they look nervous or start fidgeting, change the subject."
Williams advised that law students of color should locate minority associates on a prospective firm's website. "Then in your interview," Williams said, "ask whether or not there are associates on the recruiting committee that you could speak with and see who they give you. If they do not list any of the minority [attorneys], that should tell you something." Williams encouraged students of color to "risk asking the off the record real deal questions" of the minority lawyers there and take care to note the responses and reaction to questions asked.
Williams also advised that students inquire about continuing legal education policies, at what stage of your career will you be expected to bring in business, and how long staff members have been with the firm. Students should not discuss salary, how many hours people work a week, vacation time or weekend work during the interviewing process as those issues "are interpreted as indications that you do not want to work hard."
Williams stressed that law students "should not go for the money, [but] go with your gut. You may want to accept the offer with the most dollars, but if you do not feel good about the people you have just interviewed with, then you should not accept the job. People who are happy where they work are very easy to identify."
Haratani noted that a "big firm environment is tough to survive" and it would behoove students to gain as much information as they can from peers, their schools and outside resources. In the end, the final decision to choose a firm is "intensely personal, like who do you marry," Haratani said. "Try to do an honest personal inventory. Know what you want to do within the next year, either to buckle down and work, or to make money. Students should have a great attitude and produce great work. Nothing speaks louder than a good work product."
So, you've landed your first job at a law firm and excitedly anticipate beginning your career. Sporting your Brooks Brothers suit and carrying your first briefcase, you enter the doors of a brand new life. But as an attorney of color, what really awaits you on the other side?
Diversity and the Bar sought to answer this question by conducting an anonymous survey of attorneys of color across the country. Twelve respondents, which included nine Black women, one Asian woman, one Asian-Indian woman, and one Black man, provided interesting answers into the "real deal" of large law firm/organizational life.
Do you believe that law firms put a greater emphasis on the paper credentials of minority candidates more than their white counterparts?
Seven responded with an emphatic yes! Their grades, prestige of law school, law review, etc., received greater scrutiny than their white counterparts.
In your opinion, how has your racial/ethnic background affected your work experience?
Four respondents indicated that their race or ethnicity had played a negative role in the types and amount of work assignments they had been given, while three were unsure. Seven respondents believed that their race or ethnicity negatively affected their access to informal networks within their firm.
Five respondents believed that their racial or ethnic background played a negative role in their exposure to the firm's client's, while one respondent indicated that it "probably" did. "The partners' level of comfort or discomfort with me translates directly into whether or not they will encourage my interactions with the client," said one respondent. Another indicated that while his firm had initially been "anxious" about giving him certain clients, "some trepidation was not unwise…some of the clients would have been very anxious as well, and may have gone elsewhere with that portion of the work." One respondent indicated that her racial background had also worked in her favor when she "was selected to pitch business to a potential client who was interested in seeing the firm's diversity."
Do you believe that attorneys of color are more likely to receive negative feedback than their white peers?
A majority of the respondents believed that attorneys of color were more likely to receive negative feedback or no feedback at all than their white peers. "No feedback is almost as bad, if not worse, than negative feedback," said one respondent, "because it means that people are either too afraid to criticize you or don't care enough about your development to criticize." Another indicated that, "often, attorneys of color receive no feedback at all until disaster occurs. No one feels comfortable enough to inform you of the little mistakes before they become BIG mistakes. Once disasters strikes, however, everyone involved has something negative to add."
Do you feel that you have to "wear a mask" to downplay your race or ethnicity to be successful in your firm/organization?
Seven respondents agreed that masks were necessary to assimilate in their corporate cultures. "I have downplayed my differences to the point that most people at my old firm probably did not think of me as a minority," said one respondent. "I think I handle my gender differences in a similar way. I generally do not discuss specific topics unique to my background or gender unless I know that someone can converse easily about it. I have adapted and related to the people I work with and have functioned fine for many years. I do not think I could or want to take the mask off suddenly."
Another respondent said that she felt like she could not "wear braids in the office without making some people uncomfortable [and] as much as I love music, I wouldn't feel comfortable bringing in my boom box and playing soft music while I work, like my white colleagues. I also feel an almost unbearable pressure to be perfect…I don't know for certain that there would be any negative effect if I completely let go and got truly comfortable at work, but I am not willing to take the chance." One respondent explained that, "the mask is an effort to put 'the boys' at ease with me and let them know that I am cool." However, one respondent indicated that, "it doesn't matter if you wear a personality mask. You can't physically appear to be non-Black, so it's a waste of time and effort…I think the ones who fake it and sell out get hit the first and the hardest."
What advice can you give to new associates of color to offset potential biases that they may encounter?
The respondents had a cornucopia of advice for entering associates to help them make a successful transition in their new assignments. "You live under a magnifying glass," one respondent wrote. "Each move that you make, especially a mistake or shortcoming, is not only noticed, but will be overblown. You don't have the same leeway as your white colleagues. Never get too comfortable, keep as much of your personal business to yourself as possible [and know] that it is part of your job to make "them feel comfortable with you. Seek a mentor outside of your firm to run ideas past. Get involved in a minority bar association in your town." Another said that it was important to "learn the game [and] be confident, and yet another advised new associates to "be strong, always be prepared, and pray a lot!"
"Do your job well, so that there is no room to criticize your work," said one respondent. "You must overcome the notion that you are less talented, less skilled, less intelligent, and less diligent than everyone else. Once you prove your worth, no one can dispute that or take it away from you." Another respondent concurred, adding that a new associates must "work hard and work smart. Recognize that your position is nothing more than a job that affords you certain benefits. Be honest and friendly, recognizing that you do not have to be like the people you work with, but you do have to respect the differences, and to the extent you can without compromising any important aspect of your ethics, embrace the differences. Recognize further that you do not have to be friends with your co-workers…Last and most important, develop very thick skin and be very reluctant, unless you have real proof, to call something racism or prejudice. It may just be ignorance or oversight, nether of which is a crime."
Finally, one respondent advised that new associates "enter into the job with enthusiasm and ambition. You cannot come into the firm environment and expect to be trained or get anything out of the experience with a neutral attitude…if you come on with a strong attitude and try to actively create the experience you want to have, you have a much better chance of being happy, developing your skills as an attorney, and discovering meaningful relationship with colleagues at the firm."
From the September 2000 issue of Diversity & The Bar®