Women Lawyers of Color: The Intersection of Race and Gender in Law Firms - ABA YLD 101 Practice Series

By LaKeysha Greer Isaac

For some, the recent emphasis on increased diversity in law firms is much ado about nothing. But for women lawyers of color, facing the compound biases of race and gender can be daunting. What is the big deal about increased diversity? What can law firms do to recruit, retain and promote women lawyers of color? What can women lawyers of color themselves do to ensure that they become (and remain) valued members of the team at their law firms?

Why Diversify?

  • "It's the Right Thing to Do"
    The simplest answer to the question "why diversify?" is that it is the right thing to do. It is no secret that the demographics of the modern law firm do not often mirror current national demographics. According to a recent ABA study, 3% of law firm lawyers are women of color. See ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, The Unfinished Agenda: Women and the Legal Profession, 2001. By contrast, 14.5% of the nation's private sector workforce is comprised of women of color. See U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Women of Color: Their Employment in the Private Sector (2003). As anthropologist Margaret Mead said, "[i]f we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place."
  • The Business Case for Diversity
    The "browning of America" has brought major changes in the legal landscape, such that diversity is not just the right thing to do but it also makes good business sense. As Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in Grutter v. Bollinger, the benefits of diversity "are not theoretical but real, as major American businesses have made clear that the skills needed in today's increasingly global marketplace can only be developed through exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas and viewpoints.' Grutter, 123 S.Ct. 2325, 2340 (2003).
  • Outside of the law firm context, minorities are frequently found in previously unimagined power positions. One example is the increasing number of minorities who serve as in-house and even general counsel of major corporations. In today's climate, corporations want to see their outside counsel reflect the diversity that they themselves have engendered in their legal departments.

    In 1999, over 400 Fortune 500 corporations signed a Statement of Principle outlining their commitment to diversity and urging law firms to demonstrate a similar commitment. In 2004, these corporations followed the Statement of Principle with A Call to Action, which reiterated the corporations' demand for law firm diversity. A Call to Action implored law firms to become more diverse or face the very real possibility of losing the business of the signatory corporations. In essence, a law firm's failure to reflect diversity could result in the loss of a blue chip client.

    In addition to in - house counsel, the number of minority judges and jurors has risen dramatically over the past few years. It is overly simplistic (and simply erroneous) to believe that minority judges and jurors automatically give an edge to minority lawyers. However, it makes sense that law firms would utilize diverse lawyers with perhaps a greater cultural commonality with the experiences of the modern judge and jury.

    With the tide rapidly changing in favor of diversity in America's courtrooms and corporations, law firms that fail to employ diversity initiatives are at a sore disadvantage in marketing to new clients and in retaining existing ones.

Not Just a Numbers Game: The Role of the Law Firm in Increasing Diversity

  • Recruitment
    Recruiting is essential to increasing law firm diversity. Recruiting begins with seeking out law students through traditional means such as on campus interviews and minority job fairs, as well as non-traditional means such as direct recruitment through minority student organizations. This may include looking beyond the numbers by recruiting outside the top ten percent of law students and making offers to women students of color who possess characteristics other than good grades. It is axiomatic that a good law student does not always make a good lawyer. Other qualities - leadership ability, charisma, hard work, perseverance - may tip the scales in favor of a woman candidate of color who might not otherwise get a clerkship or associate opportunity with a firm.
  • Lateral recruiting is an important piece of the recruiting puzzle for law firms. Most lawyers no longer desire to spend their entire careers at one firm. Women lawyers of color, in particular, may become disenchanted at their law firms early in their careers, often due to a firm's failure to foster an inclusive environment or to take a genuine interest in the professional development of minority lawyers. See ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, Visible Invisibility: Women of Color in Law Firms (2006). Firms can employ several different avenues for lateral recruitment of women of color, including seeking out women of color at other law firms or in government/public interest positions and by direct recruitment of women lawyers of color through minority bar associations.

    For larger firms, one way to help ensure diverse hires is through the establishment of a diversity committee or, at minimum, through diverse representation among members of the firm's recruiting committee. If a diversity committee is established, the composition of it will be subjected to scrutiny by both law school and lateral hires. Diversity requires a top down commitment; hence, the diversity committee should not be composed of only diverse associate lawyers. Rather, the committee should include the decision - makers in the firm, e.g. members of the executive or management committee, whether diverse or non - diverse.

    For small firms, it is essential to make concerted efforts to interview women candidates of color, both at the law school and the lateral levels. Lateral hiring may be particularly attractive to small firms that may not have the resources to hire women of color fresh out of law school and to then provide them with the requisite training and development.

    Whether hiring newly minted law graduates or laterals, it is crucial that recruitment of women lawyers of color becomes a priority for law firms.

  • Retention
    Recruiting a diverse talent pool to a law firm is not enough; law firms must work to retain women lawyers of color. In a recent ABA study, statistics showed that 86% of women lawyers of color leave their first firm before their seventh year of practice. See ABA Committee on Opportunities for Minorities in the Profession, Miles to Go 2000: An Update (2000).
  • Despite the numbers, the effort required to retain women lawyers of color is not terribly different from the effort required to retain other lawyers. Women lawyers of color will stay in law firms where they feel valued and where they feel that their professional development is reaching certain benchmarks of progress.

    Those benchmarks include being provided with access to meaningful networking opportunities, both within and outside of the firm; receiving substantive work assignments; actual client contact, not just with pro bono or low hourly rate clients but also with the firm's institutional clientele; and placement on "pitch" teams when the firm is seeking new business. In addition, it is crucial that firms give the woman lawyer of color critical feedback as to her "hits and misses," both with regard to work product as well as with regard to client and firm relationships.

    In addition, law firms can retain women lawyers of color by demonstrating their commitment to diversity outside of recruiting new legal talent. For instance, the firm can participate in or contribute to activities within the bar and in the community that promote diversity or that impact minorities. If the woman lawyer of color believes that her law firm is doing more than simply trying to reach a "critical mass" of minority lawyers, she is more likely to stay at the firm to advance from associate to partnership.

  • Promotion
    Once law firms clear the hurdles of recruiting and retaining women lawyers of color, they must then make a concerted effort to ensure that these women are promoted to partner. Ranks of associates of color have steadily increased but there has been no corresponding increase in partners of color. For instance, in 2003, 15 percent of law firm associates nationwide were minorities, while only 4 percent of partners nationwide were minorities. See ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession, Miles to Go 2004: Progress of Minorities in the Legal Profession (2005).
  • It does no good for law firms to pay lip service to diversity by hiring and retaining women lawyers of color for a specified time without allowing those lawyers an opportunity to advance to the partnership ranks of the firm. Law firms can equip women lawyers of color with the tools needed to move up to partner by clearly enunciating the criteria for partnership and by providing continuing training for these women as they move toward generating work of their own.

Beyond Simply Doing Good Work: Tips for Success for Women Lawyers of Color

  • Mentoring
    Ideally, law firms will provide associates with at least two mentors: a partner and a senior associate. However, if a law firm does not have a formal mentorship program, it is incumbent upon women lawyers of color to seek out their own mentors. Senior associates are valuable sources of information, as they can provide insight into the demands of a law practice, including getting coveted assignments, dealing with law firm politics, and balancing work and family demands. It is also crucial that women lawyers of color have partner - level mentors, as a partner can ensure that the associate has access to clients and to substantive assignments; indeed, a partner - level mentor can serve as an advocate for the associate to other partners.
  • Unfortunately, due to the low numbers of women lawyers of color in law firms, both at the associate and the partner level, it is rare that the mentor will be another woman of color. However, associates can seek out women of color at other law firms, often through involvement in specialty bar associations that cater to minority lawyers.

  • Networking and Visibility
    Women lawyers of color can advance their careers by becoming visible in bar associations and other community organizations. Specialty bar associations or affiliate organizations can be especially instrumental, as they allow women lawyers of color an opportunity to become friendly with others who are similarly situated. Developing relationships with other lawyers can result in referral work, particularly when another lawyer has a conflict with representing a potential client or simply does not practice in a particular area. Other avenues for gaining visibility as a woman lawyer of color include writing and publishing legal articles and accepting speaking engagements in the lawyer's area of expertise.
  • Feedback
    Women lawyers of color must continually seek feedback on their performance from partners or more senior associates and remain open to constructive criticism. If an area of deficiency is identified, then it must be corrected immediately. Impressions of lawyers are formed early, and those impressions can follow a lawyer throughout her career. It is far easier to make a good impression and maintain it rather than to spend time trying to overcome a bad one.

By encouraging law firms to focus on the importance of diversity in the legal workplace and by increasing inclusion and opportunities for traditionally excluded groups, such as women lawyers of color, the legal profession will make real and significant progress toward the goal of true equality and fairness.


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About the Author

LaKeysha Greer Isaac is an attorney at Cosmich & Simmons, PLLC in Jackson, Mississippi, where she practices in the areas of general, commercial, employment and toxic tort litigation. She is a member of the ABA Young Lawyers Division and of the ABA Section of Litigation. She is an active member of the Mississippi Bar, the Magnolia Bar Association and the Hinds County Bar Association. She serves as co - chair of the Mississippi Bar/Young Lawyers Diversity in the Law Committee and was past co - chair of the Hinds County Bar Association's Diversity Committee.

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