For many women of color practicing law at large firms, the statistics regarding the retention and promotion of women and women of color can be borderline paralyzing. Indeed, 85 percent of minority women attorneys will leave large law firms within seven years of entering the practice of law. To shed light on how to change staggering statistics such as those, I interviewed two African-American women lawyers and authors, Eboni K. Williams and Jade Brown Russell. Both women have recently published books aimed at preparing women for best navigating the many obstacles that arise in corporate environments.
Jade Brown Russell is founder of JD Russell Consulting, LLC, a full-service legal, lobbying, and strategic consulting firm, headquartered in New Orleans, Louisiana. Prior to starting her firm, Ms. Russell worked as in-house counsel for a large corporation, a corporate associate at a regional law firm in New Orleans, and as a mergers and acquisitions associate for a large firm in Chicago, Illinois. Ms. Russell recently authored a chapter in Champions Never Tell: Sisters Surviving Storms in the Workplace.
Eboni K. Williams began her legal career as a public defender in North Carolina, representing indigent clients that often never had their story told, or were rarely listened to. Eventually, she chose to transition her litigation skills into a career as a professional broadcaster in television and radio. Ms. Williams has found that “these new roles permit [her] to continue [her] work as an advocate in a larger, more diverse space, and gratefully increase [her] ability to impact in the spaces of social justice, criminal justice, politics and more.” Her journey has taken her into law firms, public defender work, city halls, the NFL Network, CNN/HLN, CBS News, Fox News, the largest talk radio stations in both Los Angeles and New York City, and a nationwide book tour for her best-selling debut work, Pretty Powerful: Appearance, Substance & Success.
When interviewed, Ms. Russell spoke frankly about the challenges to promotion of women in law.
“Many of the challenges facing the promotion of women in the legal profession are institutionally and systemically driven. Law firms are often the least innovative organizations. The legal profession has been slow to evolve because the ‘same-old way’ has been extremely prosperous for firms—so why change what's working?” said Ms. Russell. She noted that from her experience, churning out high numbers of billable hours has not been the most conducive practice for retention of women lawyers at law firms, especially mid-to-large law firms. In her view, many women have and continue to enter into these same firms with doubts of their ability to elevate to partnership before they even start working.
Ms. Russell recalled a comment made by her mentor at her first law firm: “Don't get married, because you'll end up divorced. Don't get pregnant, because you won't be able to raise your kids.” To add insult to injury, Ms. Russell’s mentor then proceeded to give her examples by describing the statuses of the three (3) women partners in their group of 90+ attorneys. Bottom line: “We can't continue to enter into firms believing and/or knowing that the highest level of achievement is not even an option for us.”
In both her legal and media career, Ms. Williams also noticed various obstacles women faced in advancement. She stated, “Again, representation matters. In both the law and in media there are certain persistent stereotypes around educated, impactful women. Many have to do with how we are expected to ‘present’ whether in front of a jury or a television audience. The similarities are incredible. In both spaces, women are expected to be both professional and attractive. The hard part is capturing those sometimes seemingly conflicted elements in a way that persevere our power and credibility without sacrificing our personal comfort levels with our femininity.” It was this very struggle that led Ms. Williams to write, Pretty Powerful.
Where do we go from here? How do we move the needle forward? Both Ms. Russell and Ms. Williams emphasized the systemic nature of the challenges, and emphasized the importance of a multi-faceted solution, one that empowers women from within, encourages women lawyers to connect and support one another, and drives successful companies and firms to value the contribution of the women they employ.
In her consulting practice, Ms. Russell counsels companies on diversity and inclusion issues. She stated that companies must “be intentional about creating and implementing practices, programs, and policies that protect, promote, and create partnership opportunities for women.” Leaders within these organizations cannot wait for the next person to start the initiative; rather, the change must take place from the highest levels of leadership on down. She challenged firms that do not currently have women on the executive team or committee to start there.
Similarly, Ms. Williams noted that those who do not recognize the differences in priorities towards individual satisfaction and personal happiness that many women lawyers possess, will be simply “left in the cold.” She stated, “Successful corporations recognize that given the choice, women will chose themselves and their families over corporations, so the smart companies that value having women be a part of their fabric will do all they can for women to be able to cultivate that balance/satisfaction...so that the corporation doesn't get left in the cold.”
To help overcome the challenges that women lawyers face, Ms. Williams stressed the importance of flextime, particularly for women lawyers in the United States. Ms. Williams noted that she is an American Swiss Foundation Young Leader, and that one of her Swiss women counterparts works as a corporate lawyer in Zurich. Her counterpart described the impact of her company’s decision to allow all employees to have the option of one workday from home. Her counterpart noticed that as a result of the shift in policy, the company retained a much larger share of senior corporate women than their competitors, who did not employ the same policy.
Both Ms. Russell and Ms. Williams emphasized the importance of “safe spaces” where women lawyers can collaborate with another to talk about challenges, needs, opportunities, and strategy. Communication across groups is an excellent tool for women lawyers to find safe spaces before a snowball turns into an avalanche.
To fight for her “seat at the table,” Ms. Williams relied on her preparation and fearlessness. She stated that it is much easier to be prepared than fearless. Nonetheless, she emphasized the importance of “doing the work, research, and active preparation to ensure that you contribute something of value to the table.” She urges women to trust themselves, and their preparation, which is her own personal definition of confidence. “I know I've done the work and earned every seat I’ve ever had at any table, so once there I fearlessly assert my purpose in the space, whether that's welcomed by others at the table or not. I’m not there to please, I'm there to impact and sometimes that means disrupting the norm. I’m very OK with being a disruptor.”
For the women lawyers, and particularly young women lawyers searching for their path, Ms. Russell offered the following words of wisdom: “Every job, every opportunity, every experience, every struggle, every sacrifice, every hater, every joy-stealer, and every no—they all count! Steve Jobs once said that you cannot connect the dots looking forward—you can only connect the dots looking back. Many times we can’t see how much all of the experiences we have are collectively worth, but you have to have keep pressing forward and have an unwavering faith that you will look back and be able to connect the dots.”