GPSolo Magazine - March 2006
Business And Commercial Law
One Hurdle at a Time: Women Lawyers of Color Need to Be Heard
They don’t fit the mold. But in a field dominated by white males, the presence of women lawyers of color is posing a bold challenge to traditional ways of thinking. These women demand that, this time around, the mold be made to fit them.
Francelyn Perez, an associate with Tristan Ports LLC in Chicago, knows what it’s like to come face-to-face with obstacles—and come out on top. Armed with her talent and law degree, dressed in a power suit and a string of pearls, Perez knows she’s not exactly what her clients expect to see when they walk through her office door. “They think: She’s young, female, Puerto Rican,” she said. “I think I’m definitely challenging a lot of notions about what a lawyer is—who they should be—and what they can do.”
Unfortunately, in today’s society, women lawyers of color such as Perez still have a long and arduous fight ahead of them as they attempt to negotiate a place for themselves in a field that continues to question and underestimate their abilities because of their gender and race.
“There have been some improvements, but they’re happening at a glacial pace,” said Diane Yu, chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession. “Women of color have to grapple with both sexism and racism, stereotypes that have impeded women of color from reaching success.”
In 2003, the commission embarked on a research initiative to fully examine the realities, experiences, and perspectives of women of color in the legal field—a project that stands poised to make history as the first of its kind. The research initiative will include quantitative and qualitative data collection, ranging from surveys of women lawyers of color, a series of focus groups and individual interviews targeting women lawyers of color, and interviews with hiring professionals from law firms, corporations, governmental entities, nonprofit organizations, and law schools.
According to a 2001 study , Women in Law, Making the Case, published by Catalyst, a leading research and advisory organization that works with businesses and the legal field to expand opportunities for women, the following numbers are a vivid indicator that something is wrong:
• Job advancement: 30 percent of women lawyers of color are satisfied (compared to 41 percent of white women).
• Clients prefer to work with white lawyers: 46 percent of women lawyers of color agree (compared to 26 percent of white women and 13 percent of white men).
• More attention needs to be placed on race/ethnic issues: 44 percent of women lawyers of color agree (compared to 35 percent of white women and 26 percent of white men).
Virtually no other statistics exist focusing specifically on women of color in the legal field, a sharp reminder of the pressing need for more awareness of these women’s experiences and realities.
Alpha Brady, director of the Division for Policy Administration at the ABA, remembers being told by her prelaw adviser not to set her sights too high and apply to schools within her reach. She thanked him for his advice and instead decided to go ahead and apply to Northwestern University School of Law. She got in. According to Brady, the gender and racial discrimination that women of color face in the legal profession is simply reflective of a greater social problem: “The legal profession is no different from society. As long as society has a problem with gender and race, this profession will as well,” she said.
Elizabeth A. Moreno, of the Law Offices of Elizabeth A. Moreno in Los Angeles, recalls a time when she left a firm because she did not feel valued—and ended up taking a major client with her. “In regard to Hispanics in this field, there were none. You just kind of bit the bullet and tried your best to make it on your own,” she said. Moreno, whose ancestors came from Spain but stopped along the way in Argentina and Hawaii, feels that because of her light skin, an inheritance from her mother, her ethnicity took a back seat to her gender.
According to a 2003 report, A Current Glance at Women in the Law, published by the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, women comprise 29.1 percent of all lawyers. In addition, women lawyers continue to earn less money than their male counterparts: The median salary of women lawyers is 76 percent of men’s. By the year 2010, women will constitute nearly 40 percent of the legal profession, said Yu, chair of the commission.
Moreno added that there is a strong need for ethnic groups to have representatives in the judiciary and in the legal field whom they can connect with. She said it was disturbing that even at a time when the Latino population has become the largest and fastest growing minority group in the United States, the majority of the judiciary continues to be dominated by white/Anglomales.
In addition to noting the sexism and racism that women of color face in the legal field, especially in the area of corporate law, women of color voiced a need to see other women like themselves in positions of authority who could serve as mentors and role models.
Karen Clanton, former chair for the ABA’s Multicultural Women Attorneys Network, said that society has to keep in mind the unique nuances and complexities that characterize the experiences of women of color. “Women of color are in a particularly unique position because their gender is racialized, and at the same time, the racial stereotypes about them have gendered undertones,” Clanton explained. According to her, the lack of mentors is one of the key reasons behind the high attrition rate of women lawyers of color.
Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell and Berkowitz PC, in Birmingham, Alabama, is just one of a growing number of firms that have recently decided to bank on diversity. For their recruiting director, Sue Porter, it’s simply the right thing to do. Instead of just recruiting the brightest minorities from college campuses and offering them summer associate positions—the typical approach that most law firms take when it comes to recruiting minority associates—Baker Donelson has experienced incredible success by bringing in qualified minorities as shareholders.
“These minority shareholders serve as mentors for minority students when we go recruiting,” Porter said. “If you don’t have minority leaders, when these minority associates face challenges unique to them, they don’t have anyone to turn to for help,” she said. “I think that’s why most firms fail (when it comes to retention of minority associates). Although they hire them—they don’t seem to be able to hold on to them.”
According to Clanton, diversity just makes sense financially. “I believe in diversity of perspectives (not just race, gender, age). This adds more to addressing legal problems creatively and effectively,” Clanton said. “Diversity brings value to the bottom line.”
Darhiana Mateo is a freelance writer in Champaign, Illinois. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
|For More Information about the Section of Business Law|
- This article is an abridged and edited version of one that originally appeared on page 35 of Business Law Today, September/October 2005 (15:1).
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