July 29, 2020 Feature

Report on Women of Color Lawyers Lands During National Reckoning with Race

By Cynthia L. Cooper

The summer of 2020 was not on the minds of researchers when, three years ago, they embarked on studying the experiences of women of color who had practiced in law firms for 15 years or more as part of a multipronged project on long-term careers by the American Bar Association (ABA) and the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession.

“I actually think that it is a good time for the report to come out because maybe people will pay a little closer attention to it,” says Paulette Brown, senior partner and chief diversity and inclusion officer at the international law firm Locke Lord LLP and one of the coauthors of Left Out and Left Behind: The Hurdles, Hassles, and Heartaches of Achieving Long-Term Legal Careers for Women of Color with Destiny Peery and Eileen Letts. At the time, Brown was coordinating town hall meetings with people of color and executives at her firm, discussing race matters that had recently overtaken current events.

When the report was released, American society was wrapped in reexaminations of systemic racism following police actions that resulted in the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other African Americans. Black Lives Matter protests in 350 cities and towns, antiracism forums, roundtables, and corporate statements filled the news.

“It is a necessary time. People are thinking about these things now. Everybody is saying that this time is different, and it does feel different,” says Brown, who in 2015 became the first African American woman to serve as president of the ABA.

The Left Out report, using in-person focus groups and an online survey, pulls back the curtains on the lived experiences of women of color in law firms. The authors sought to discover how women of color had progressed since 2006 when Visible Invisibility: Women of Color in Law Firms, a study by the ABA and the Commission on Women in the Profession, reported a lack of opportunities in work assignments, stereotyping, and invisibility that impeded the ability of women of color to succeed.

The answer 14 years later: “Little has changed for women of color in the legal profession. They continue to feel as though, by virtue of their race and gender, they are left standing on the outside of even the small advances made by white women,” Left Out reports. “The profession has largely continued to ignore their plight.”

Small Shares of the Pie

Statistically, women of color hold but a handful of leadership roles in law firms, and the attrition rate is high. Women of color account for 14 percent of associates but only 5 percent of non-equity partners and a mere 3 percent of equity partners, according to the 2018 Vault/MCCA (Minority Corporate Counsel Association) Law Firm Diversity Survey. This means that 21 percent of the women of color who start on the law firm path reach the level of equity partner. By comparison, white women make up 32 percent of associates, 25 percent of non-equity partners, and 17 percent of equity partners, still a significant narrowing on the rise up the law firm ladder, but at a rate (54 percent) more than double that of women of color.

“Some experiences of women of color are the same; some are not. They have to deal with both: being a woman but also people of color. Women of color are not given the same opportunities as white women,” says Eileen Letts, a partner at Zuber Lawler and Del Duca LLP in Chicago and one of the study’s coauthors.

A 2019 report, Walking Out the Door: The Facts, Figures, and Future of Experienced Women Lawyers in Private Practice by the ABA and ALM Intelligence highlighted the persistence of gender bias as a significant inhibition to the advancement of all women.

When race is added to gender, the challenges become formidable. Women of color experience a lack of mentorship, being talked over in meetings, not getting credit for their ideas, the scarcity of inclusion in business opportunities, and the absence of a support system to help them navigate rough patches, as well as deep-rooted stereotypes about women and life balance.

“It’s an uphill battle,” Letts notes.

Women of Color in Law Share Their Feelings

Voices emerging from women of color in Left Out reflect a weariness with the additional challenges they encounter. The report is drawn from 103 participants in 11 focus groups held in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York and an online survey. Those participating self-identified as black (49 percent), Asian (22 percent), Hispanic/Latinx (14 percent), or multiracial or multiethnic (16 percent). There was outreach to a broad array of bar associations and individuals in an effort to obtain input from women of color of all races and ethnicities.

In focus groups, participants were encouraged to share their experiences and how they see the arc of their careers. “I have to keep proving myself to clients, peers, superiors, subordinates, even after each success. . . . I feel like I have to try harder than white [men]. I feel like people don’t give me the same tools to succeed or excel. I have to make my own way without these tools for success,” said one black woman lawyer in a focus group.

Law firms need to be doing more to support, train, and mentor women of color in their ranks, says Sharon Barner, vice president and general counsel for the Indiana-based Fortune 500 company Cummins Inc. In June, Barner’s picture appeared in the Indianapolis Recorder, under the heading: “Sharon Barner: I am black. I am a mother.” Two paragraphs of quotes ended with: “(W)e must be undaunted and undeterred in our efforts to undo systemic racism.”

Barner spent 30 years at the 2,000-lawyer firm Foley & Lardner LLP in Chicago, where she worked her way up from associate to partner, team leader, and a member of the management team. “To be successful in law firms, you have to be given good, complex work; you have to be given good supervisors who will mentor and train you; and you have to be given the ability to be successful and to fail, and recover,” Barner observes.

“From the law firm perspective, you have to teach people how to get clients and to keep them,” she continues. “Some of that is an art and some of it is a science, and it’s about access and visibility. That requires being in the room.”

As general counsel, Barner says that she insists that diverse lawyers have meaningful and visible roles on outside counsel teams.

To Stay or Go

Women of color regularly consider leaving their law firms, according to the results in Left Out, because they feel undervalued or face barriers to advancement, as well as experiencing an inability to meet personal and professional responsibilities. While the reasons are not dissimilar from those of white women in the profession, a substantial number of women of color—as high as 70 percent in the study—said they have considered leaving or had left.

Where they have not left, their reasons may vary from those of white women. Women of color experience different financial and familial pressures that they feel preclude them from departing. The study finds that more women of color are single and the sole breadwinners in their families. “I’m a single mother of two children. . . . I’ve got bills to pay. So I can’t really leave,” explained one Asian woman participant in Left Out.

The report states that “different family structures, needs, and priorities create distinct challenges for maintaining a personal and professional life that differ not only for men and women, but also for women of different backgrounds.” Among other things, women of color are more likely to have commitments to extended family and their community and less likely to have domestic help than other firm members.

Another especially striking reason to stay: the need women of color feel to live up to the expectations of their families and to be a role model for their communities. “(M)y continued presence is beneficial for younger generations. I also try to be the mentor that I wanted when I started out,” noted one Latinx participant.

Using Their Intellectual Capacity Is Key

Underlying the experiences of women of color who participated in the report is one constant: a love of the law.

“I enjoyed using my brain to solve complex problems for my clients. I love the nuances and strategy involved with litigating cases and conducting investigations. . . . I enjoy grappling with the gray areas . . . it feeds my inner nerd’s soul,” said one black woman in her mid-40s.

But, despite that love, law firms make it difficult for women of color to succeed, says Kim M. Rivera, president of strategy and business management and chief legal officer for HP Inc. in Palo Alto, California, and the chair-elect of the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity (LCLD).

“You start with the proposition that these are very hard jobs to do. On top of that, you are required to put in an extra degree of effort, energy, and intellectual capital to achieve the same level of opportunity. And it shows up across assignments, client relationships, and compensation, and there is the additional degree of difficulty in trying to execute well and prove yourself across all of those domains,” Rivera says.

“Those barriers are real,” she continues, “and whether they are the result of behaviors, customs, policies, or practices, law firms need to start staring at what needs to happen to eliminate them.”

Until that time, Rivera is ready to recruit law firm talent for her in-house team. “It’s not unreasonable at all for someone in that situation to look for better alternatives where they are going to be either compensated or recognized for the amount of effort, time or achievement they have to deliver,” she says. “We think about diversity, inclusion, and the need to make them an integral part of the culture in the pursuit of innovation and in reflecting our global customers.”

Yet, in the law firm environment, women of color sometimes feel they can’t win. They are presumed to be docile if they say nothing and overly aggressive if they speak out. Micro-aggressions accumulate—one woman describes keeping a file folder full of the reasons why she should leave. Differing experiences emerge among individual identities for women of color, whether black, Latinx, Asian, Native American, or multiracial, but all describe constantly looking for a way to fit in. “(We) have to morph to what society wants from us, whether it’s to make yourself bigger or to make yourself smaller,” said one study participant.

Paulette Brown wants firm leaders to use the Left Out study as a call to take a closer look at the women of color in their firms. “People have to open their eyes and see that, yes, these things really do happen to people. I hope they will say, ‘what can we do within our organization to make structural change so that, five years, 10 years from now, no person can be coaxed away because we’re not providing the tools they need to be successful and happy in our organization?’”

She adds: “I’m the eternal optimist.”


Cynthia L. Cooper


Cynthia L. Cooper is a journalist in New York with a background as a practicing lawyer.