Summary of 2006 Report Released by ABA’s Commission on Women in the Profession
Women of color endure many challenges relating to both their gender and race when faced with the difficult task of successfully navigating firm politics. Pamela Roberts, current chair of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession (CWP), recently summarized the plight of women attorneys of color: “Regardless of how accomplished a woman [particularly a woman of color] may be, she cannot climb—much less reach the top of—the leadership ladder until the legal profession begins to reflect the diversity of society.”
Throughout the years, the number of women attorneys of color leaving law firms has increased to disturbing levels. In the late 1990s, the National Association of Law Placement (NALP) concluded that more than 75 percent of women of color associates had left their jobs at law firms within five years of being hired. By 2005, 81 percent of women of color reported leaving their law firms within five years of being hired. Sixty-six percent of women leave law firms within five years and 86 percent of women leave law firms within eight years.1
The mass exodus of women of color from the legal profession within five years indicates that these women have had little client development experience and poor mentoring, leaving them with virtually no hope of ever becoming partner. Leaving is often their only choice, as it is common practice that any attorney who has not made partner, or at least is on the partnership track, within eight years will likely be forced out of the firm.
In an effort to effectuate lasting reforms in the legal community, the CWP, a national leader on women’s issues in the bar, decided to initiate a research project to better understand the issues facing women of color specifically. In 2003, the CWP created a study on the unique experiences and challenges that women of color face in firms, entitled “Women of Color in the Legal Profession Research Initiative.”
The study was designed to be used as a catalyst for removing institutional barriers for women and to arm law firms with the information and tools to encourage them to fully serve and succeed in the law. The CWP, with help from the National Opinion Research Center (NORC), a social science research organization at the University of Chicago, designed a comprehensive survey and focus group methodology, complete with database development and quality control assurance, that aimed to highlight the differences in the development and advancement of women of color as compared to their counterparts in law firms who were male and white.
Research Strategy—Breakdown of Responses in Relation to Demographics
The NORC sent out an anonymous 40-question survey to attorneys fitting the applicable demographics (women of color, men of color, white men, and white women) across the country who had, at some point in their legal careers, worked at a law firm of at least 25 attorneys. The findings of the CWP’s study were culled from 1,347 attorney responses, and targeted approximately 920 responses, including a diverse cross-section of attorneys—632 women of color, 250 white women, 250 white men, and 215 men of color—with an overall response rate of 72.2 percent. The response rate was 74 percent for women attorneys of color, 68 percent for men of color, 79 percent for white women, and 64 percent for white men. All participants were asked about their career experiences, salaries, and decisions to stay or leave law firms.
Additional insight was gained through focus groups of women attorneys of color held in Atlanta, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC. Forty-eight women participated in these groups: 11 Hispanic/Latinas, nine African Americans, nine bi- or multiracial, nine Native Americans, and 10 Asian Americans.
Unique Challenges in Every Facet of their Careers
The results of the study are devastating. Women of color face negative effects in both their professional and personal lives that can be directly linked to their perceived “invisibility” at work. Consequently, women of color are constantly plagued by feelings of isolation and exclusion and unwanted critical attention, which are usually intensified with their placement on the periphery of their law firm’s social and political structures. In fact, the study shows that nearly 50 percent of women of color, but only three percent of white men, experienced demeaning comments or harassment in the workplace.
Similarly, many women of color attorneys reported that they had received unfair performance evaluations, as opposed to one percent of white men. Other minority women described their evaluations as being “soft,” which denied them the opportunity to correct deficits and gain experiences that could lead to promotions and partnership. Approximately 20 percent of women of color surveyed believed that they were denied promotion opportunities.
According to the study, 44 percent of the women attorneys of color reported missing out on desirable assignments because of race or gender, as compared to 25 percent of men of color, 38.6 percent of white women, and two percent of white men. These results are largely attributed to law partners’ comfort zones—people are simply more comfortable passing work to other people who look and act like themselves. Accordingly, many of the women of color described experiences of being stuck in dead-end assignments, so that as third- and fourth-year associates, their experience lagged behind their white male counterparts.
Between lack of desirable assignments and limited access to client development opportunities, 43 percent of women of color, but only three percent of white men, reported having limited access to client development opportunities. Several of the women of color reported that when they were included in client development meetings, it was only because diversity was a key element in the case or to the client. In many instances, after these women were used to lure the business to the firm, they had no opportunity to do any of the work. This limited interaction with clients kept them from developing contacts that they could use to develop a book of business or find another position. In sum, women attorneys of color reported that their advancement potential and career trajectories in relation to cultivating business and fostering client relationships were vastly limited in comparison to their counterparts.
The overriding feelings of invisibility by women of color are often a result of them being “twice removed” from the nucleus of power in law firms, meaning they are two steps away from the people who control the legal profession—white men—as both their race and gender are different. Consequently, women of color often have fewer natural bonds with those who control their future, as opposed to white women and men of color.
Indeed, white women and men of color are only once removed from white men by differences in background. This notion is best explained as the “living room/locker room dichotomy.” The “living room” metaphor relates to the historic relationship between white men and white women interacting with each other in the living room. Likewise, the “locker room” metaphor loosely relates to white men and non-white men and the athletic bonds that bind men regardless of race.
Women of color do not fit into either scenario. Whereas white men have interactions with white women and men of color, white men generally have limited experience with women of color. In fact, for many white men, their most significant interaction with women of color may be those serving as housekeepers or nannies for their children. This presents a huge disadvantage for women of color in the legal profession because it further distances them from being perceived as a peer, colleague, and even a future partner. The stress of finding a place for themselves in firms has led many women of color to reconsider their career goals. Regarding the retention rates of women of color, the effect of women of color reevaluating their careers in the law results in lopsided statistics—only 53 percent of women of color chose to remain in law firms, whereas 72 percent of white men chose to remain in law firms. The remaining 47 percent of women of color left firms to work in settings where they thought others’ decisions about their careers would be based more on merit, and where they had more flexibility to balance personal life, family, and work.2
Poorly Executed Mentorship Programs
The lack of positive mentorship experiences also plays a significant role in how women attorneys of color view their viability and worth in law firms. The survey found that 67.3 percent of the women of color interviewed would have liked more and/or better mentoring by senior attorneys or partners. This conclusion is staggering when compared to 52.3 percent of men of color, 54.6 percent of white women, and 31.8 percent of white men who felt the same way. “Partners do not invest in those they do not see,” states a woman attorney of color. This statement rings true—the report concluded that truly effective mentoring is more likely to occur when mentors and protégés form relationships naturally. Finding a mentor is a difficult task in and of itself; however, it is tougher for women attorneys of color because there are so few senior women of color in law firms to whom they can relate.
Exclusion From External and Internal Networks
Success in a law firm is largely attributed to a lawyer’s acceptance into the firm’s internal networks. Unfortunately, women of color often report being excluded from their firm’s internal networks because they are viewed as the “other.” Approximately 62 percent of women of color in the survey reported being excluded from both formal and informal networking opportunities. Many women of color attributed their exclusion to the existence of the “old boys’ network” in their law firms and believed that their superiors preferred and valued the comfort level they felt with other males; the women remained virtually invisible. In fact, many of the women attorneys of color reported instances of being mistaken for clerical staff, court reporters, and paralegals.
Likewise, external networks—relationships with clients and bar associations—are critical to career success within firms. The report states that 43 percent of women of color reported having limited access to client development and relationship opportunities, as did 55 percent of white women, 24 percent of men of color, but only three percent of white men. The women of color believed that people did not take them seriously and were hesitant to trust them with certain types of work. In fact, 15 percent of women of color—as opposed to three percent of white men—reported that clients asked to work with someone else once they realized who was working on their matters. These instances, coupled with a firm’s lack of support, work to make women attorneys of color experience heightened levels of loneliness and alienation. A woman of color in the survey lamented her exclusion from informal mentoring and information sharing, namely the shared lunches and social outings among male Caucasian attorneys, by saying, “[T]hese informal settings allow majority attorneys to get valuable insight, ‘dirt,’ and work opportunities… which leads to better work, more client contact, etc… but puts me at a disadvantage compared to majority attorneys.”
The Ripple Effect of Billable Hour Requirements
Quite often, women of color experience heightened pressure to meet billable hour requirements, particularly when they are being routinely passed over when choice assignments are handed out. Approximately 46 percent of the women of color who responded to the survey said that they were able to meet billing requirements, compared to 53 percent of men of color, 59 percent of white women, and 58 percent of white men. While the ability to meet required billable hours was not a critical factor in whether women of color stayed in or left private practice, some of those surveyed believed that career rewards were not forthcoming even when they met billable hour requirements. For example, a Native American woman explained that, “Partnership is based partially on bringing in money and business… [even if] my billable rate is going to be off the chart for a second-year associate, it’s not going to help me make partner any quicker.”3
Effects of Perpetuated Biased Perceptions
Biased perceptions of women of color in law firms often result from ingrained manifestations of race and gender that are most accurately described as “invisible barriers.” One of the reasons that these invisible barriers have been perpetuated is because women of color have been discouraged from complaining about their status and treatment in the workplace. Since the legal community is an exclusive and close-knit enclave of professionals, the threat of being “blackballed” by prospective employers thwarts any dialogue relating to the disparate treatment of women attorneys of color in comparison to other groups of attorneys. This practice of discretion is followed even when women of color endure experiences in their law firms that are deemed blatantly rude and demeaning. A woman attorney of color decided to discreetly leave her law firm rather than stay at the firm and deal with what quickly became a ‘visible barrier’, which was an incident in which a white male boss called her a ‘bitch’ in front of the entire office. “He thought he was complimenting me on being tough, hard-nosed, and no-nonsense. However, I was highly offended and deeply hurt by the comment. Even though I know that the root of the comment was meant to be complimentary, it stung a lot.”
Retention Recommendations Regarding Women of Color
The CWP’s study was designed to be used by law firms as a tool to affirmatively incorporate women of color into the exclusive folds of law firm culture. In order to successfully thwart systemic discrimination against women of color, law firms must recognize that the experiences of women of color are different from those of other groups; implementing changes to reflect this difference is necessary to retain them. Accordingly, the firm’s response to high attrition rates of women of color should supercede the usual remedy of just making appointments to diversity committees, but also to initiate active mentorship programs, encourage firmwide discussions about issues concerning women attorneys of color, and instituting comprehensive associate reviews that aim to give constructive feedback to women associates of color.
According to the report, there must be a concerted effort to include women of color in the social and professional fabric of the law firm. To do this, special efforts must be made not to make the individual woman of color the issue, but rather to make the firm culture as open and inclusive as possible. As long as firms have a willingness to change the status quo and commit to investing the time, money, and attention to create a level playing field for women of color, substantial improvements are attainable. This will ensure not only the success of the woman of color, but also the success of the law firm.
Furthermore, law firms should encourage the women attorneys of color within their ranks to act as advocates for diversity within their own firm. This advocacy can act as a buffer for recruits who look at the firm pecking order and realize that very few partners, if any, look like them. Likewise, if these women attorneys of color, as small a number as they may be, are content with their status at the firm and convey a feeling of inclusiveness and openness to potential recruits, success at the firm then becomes a real possibility to the recruits, and the firm benefits by achieving diversity.
The report recommends that clients do more to influence the success of women attorneys of color at the law firms they hire. Clients often possess more power to command diversity from their firms than they realize, and are in the best position to inquire about their firm’s diversity practices. Consequently, if a client asks their representative firm about their diversity hiring and practices, the firm’s managing partners are then compelled to reevaluate their current practices as they relate to women of color from a business standpoint.
The report also recommends that firms address the success of women of color as a firm issue, not a women of color issue; integrate women of color into existing measurement efforts as well as into the firm’s professional and social fabric; use dialogue to increase awareness of issues facing women of color; support the efforts of women of color to build internal and external support systems; and stay compliant with anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies, including holding people to account for non-compliance.
As a result of the changing landscape of the legal profession, firms are now charged with both financially and morally investing in diversity planning in order to improve their marketability, desirability, and overall corporate culture. The CWP’s findings regarding the concerns and needs of women attorneys of color are too significant not to be shared and utilized. People in power often perpetuate the disparities, and the only way to dispel them is to effectuate change in individual firms, followed by the legal community at large.
It is imperative for law firms who are armed with these recommendations to recognize that the flaws in the current system can no longer be perpetuated. Firms need to actively participate in resolving the grave disparities outlined in the report by applying the findings to their own corporate structures. The report can be ordered at the ABA’s website: http://www.abanet.org/women/woc/wocinitiative.html.
From this point forward, women attorneys of color should always be acknowledged as a unique group with unique needs within the firm’s larger diversity and professional development efforts, so that any changes to the legal landscape will be properly focused and effectuated. DB
Paulette Brown is a member of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession and co-chair of the report, as well as a partner in the Labor and Employment practice group at Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge.
- ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, Visible Invisibility: Women of Color in Law Firms, Aug. 4, 2006, at 11.
- Ibid, 14.
- Ibid, 75.
From the March/April 2007 issue of Diversity & The Bar®