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September 05, 2018 Article

Starter Kit for Lawyers of Color: 12 Tips for Conscious Lawyering

By Janice Arellano and Malik Pickett

As a former elementary school teacher who still receives emails and correspondence from fellow educators and teachers’ organizations, I came across the article “Back to School: A Survival Guide for Teachers of Color.” This particular article struck a chord with me because so many of the points can be applied to the law profession.

I am still very new to the profession—one might consider me a “young lawyer” as I am only in my third year of practicing law. However, in my relatively few years in practice, I have witnessed fellow lawyers of color not only transition out because of burnout but also job-hop because of the daily microaggressions they experienced in their respective firms or organizations.

In fact, studies have shown that lawyers of color have the lowest retention rates at major law firms and have been the most scrutinized in performance reviews and writing ability despite similar quality of work compared to their white counterparts.

Furthermore, according to the ABA’s 10-Year Trend in Lawyer Demographics report, African American lawyers comprise 5 percent of the profession, Asian American lawyers constitute 3 percent, Hispanic lawyers are 5 percent, and multiracial and Native American lawyers comprise a mere 1 percent each. In contrast, Caucasian/white lawyers have remained at 85 percent to 89 percent of the profession since 2008. Clearly, the legal field is still not that diverse and certainly not very inclusive.

Since the ABA’s theme for summer 2018 is Health and Wellness, we have compiled some tips for lawyers of color to ensure that they remain in the profession for the long haul and that diversity and inclusion in the profession continue to improve.

Believe in Yourself and Thank Yourself Daily
As lawyers of color, it is often very difficult to remember what we have accomplished and the impact that we have made in the profession because of the number of biases and stereotypes unfairly deeming us perpetual foreigners and/or outsiders. Remember when you studied hard for the bar exam and felt that you were not going to make it . . .  yet you saw your name on that list of those who passed?

Believe in yourself and be grateful that you are in this profession. No matter how difficult that motion was or how tedious it was to review the same document repeatedly, thank yourself for the day’s work. There is no assignment that is too small. Many people would want to be in your shoes and have the awesome responsibility that the license to practice provides.

If you need a boost in giving yourself daily affirmations, consider the following apps:

Set Monthly Professional-Development Goals
At the beginning of every year, people make New Year’s resolutions but often do not meet them because they don’t check in with their goals monthly. Instead of such resolutions, set a professional development goal for each month of the year designed to help you in the profession. Write them down.

A very successful female partner at a top 100 Am Law firm once told me that she makes sure that she attends at least two networking events per month so that she continues to develop her professional network. As soon as she hears of an event that she wants to attend, she puts it in her calendar.

Another monthly goal for many new lawyers can be to review a section of the local court rules, read a book on legal writing and/or a treatise in a practice area of interest to you, or ask partners if they need any help with any new projects.

If you do this, you will see that by the end of the year, you have managed your own professional development. Don’t just depend on completing your MCLE credits every year.

Solidify and Maintain Friendships with Peers Within the Profession
Law school friendships and peers within the profession can help both to propel us and to keep us grounded. We become each other’s sponsors.

In our experience, loved ones want us to be successful. However, they may have difficulty understanding the level of sacrifice necessary just to stay afloat and the even greater level of sacrifice needed for us to thrive. Furthermore, they may not understand why they might have to make sacrifices—for example, in the form of time spent with us—to allow us room for growth. Friends who have shared experiences can share strategies that allow us to achieve a positive balance between our personal and professional lives.

Furthermore, friends can help us to understand that the path we walk is not foreign. Your law school friends can be your safety net; they will often be able to relate to your experience and can often provide valuable insight on how to handle certain situations. It is comforting to know that your experience is common.

Furthermore, friends who share the minority experience are especially valuable because they know the strategies that must be employed to navigate complex work cultures. As is often said, experience is the best teacher.

Maintaining law school friendships is also the easiest and most basic form of networking. Navigating the legal field is all about relationships. Law school friends can provide business through referrals, job opportunities, and useful substantive knowledge in a legal area in which you are unfamiliar.

Join and/or Attend Local Affinity Bar Association Events
You may find that you are the only person of color in your organization and/or firm, but don’t fret. There are many others who are going through similar experiences, and that is why joining affinity bar groups is so important. Many affinity bar associations have mixers with other organizations. This is a great way to be in an inclusive space while learning from seasoned professionals and having some fun.

The importance of networking cannot be stressed enough in the legal field, especially for attorneys of color. The adage “It is not what you know but who you know” will continue to benefit those who heed its advice.

On many occasions, the deciding factor between similarly (or even disparately) qualified candidates for a job is a relationship with a mutual contact. Some law firms and legal organizations do not want to go through the formal process of posting a job and waiting for candidates to apply, so they will often ask current associates or other professional contacts for qualified candidates. If you are one of the individuals mentioned, it will infinitely improve your chances of getting an interview and maybe even landing the job. As a result, it is paramount to not only meet but also foster relationships with as many lawyers as possible.

Many attorneys meet fellow attorneys but do not take the extra steps of remaining in contact and learning more about their practice. These steps serve a twofold purpose: (1) allowing you to evaluate and compare your experience to those of other attorneys and (2) allowing you to learn of other potential practice areas should you ever want to transition to a different job.

Furthermore, networking can provide referrals for potential clients. If you and/or your practice are in the “electronic Rolodex” of several attorneys, you may end up receiving clients when those attorneys are unable to handle certain matters for one of their current or potential clients. For attorneys of color in private practice, the ability to bring in clients can catapult a career to the next level.

Be Humble and Embrace Constructive Criticism
You may have been told by previous supervisors during internships or by professors that you have talent; but once you enter the profession, that talent will only be cultivated through hard work and acceptance of constructive criticism.

Thus, even talented lawyers will not necessarily be the best at everything—or even good at everything—at the outset. Lawyers are professional writers and oral advocates, but it takes years to develop this trade. Every day, you should develop a new way of dealing with an issue or implementing language in a memo or brief. Many young lawyers forget why their work is called a “practice.”

As lawyers of color, we must strive for excellence. That means, in the words of Kendrick Lamar, “sit down” and “be humble”—and embrace constructive criticism. Along that line, learn from the redlines that you receive. If you are not receiving feedback on assignments or projects, you should seek that out from your supervisors. You will be a better lawyer for learning what improvements you could have made in your assignments and remembering that feedback in the future.

Take Part in Regional/National Events for Lawyers of Color
Below is a sampling of organizations that put together regional or nationwide events for lawyers of color. These organizations provide excellent programming for young lawyers to develop their leadership skills and learn best practices in various substantive legal areas.

Incorporate Exercise and Clean Eating
We were not sure about including this as a “tip” for lawyers, but it probably is one of the most important. How can we create our legacies in the profession if our bodies and minds are not maintained? Many of us—especially those in BigLaw, where lawyers may bill up to 100 hours in four days—focus on billing time and neglect exercise and good eating habits. However, exercise and clean eating will help reduce the stress inherent in the practice of law.

Furthermore, historically, medical studies have excluded people of color, and people of color have been plagued by institutional racism and lack of access to quality health care. Accordingly, it is imperative that we take care of ourselves and listen to our bodies’ needs.

Say Yes to Writing and Speaking Opportunities
You might believe that you write and speak often as you draft motions and speak in front of a judge or jury regularly. However, it is important to seize extra opportunities to write for law-related blogs, journals, or magazines. Another way to showcase your knowledge about a topic is speaking on a panel or other forum. These opportunities allow litigators not only to continue to polish their writing and speaking skills but also to communicate your views. The ability to communicate is critical to a successful practice.

Mentor a Law Student
Mentoring does not need to be formal or a part of a set program. You can mentor a law student by simply offering your help whenever it is needed. Easy ways to mentor law students are to review their resumes, discuss career paths, or conduct mock interviews. Although these are small tasks, they can go a long way in a law student’s career.

Find Time for Yourself
The practice of law is extremely all-consuming, and it will often seem as though you only have time for work-related tasks. However, we strongly advise finding some time, either daily or weekly, to do for yourself something that you love. Whether it be volunteerism, affiliation with a religious organization, catching up with family and friends, or just reading a novel, make it a priority to carve out some time for yourself. There will always be another assignment to complete, but breaks can help avert the gradual mental fatigue that plagues most lawyers.

An alarming number of attorneys of color become jaded with the practice of law, which often stems from a lack of outside diversionary activities. Every attorney will require a different ratio of work to personal life in the work-life balance formula, and every lawyer has to ascertain his or her own comfort level. The important thing to remember, though, is that work-life balance is vital to your mental health and long-term success in this field.

Engage in Pro Bono Activities
Practicing law is a privilege—one that carries the responsibility to help others who may not be able to afford private representation. Engaging in pro bono activities will allow you to meet attorneys, network, help others, and improve your legal skills. Local affinity bar associations will usually have connections with pro bono organizations and can help you get involved.

Often, pro bono legal organizations will offer training in various areas to allow outside attorneys to help clients in those areas. This is a great way to gain exposure to a new area of law that may pique your interest and to simultaneously broaden your skill set. It will also inject some diversity into your everyday practice because you will be experiencing new areas of the law.

Some firms will allow you to bill for pro bono work, which is an added incentive about which you should inquire with your firm.

Based on the statistics, we still have a very long journey toward changing the face(s) of the legal profession. Hopefully, though, our list of tips will be valuable for fellow lawyers of color in inspiring them to remain as attorneys and, thus, vastly improving diversity and inclusion in our profession.


Janice Arellano is a litigation associate at Norris McLaughlin & Marcus, P.A., based in Bridgewater, New Jersey, and is cochair of the Minority Trial Lawyer Committee. Malik Pickett is an associate attorney at Wade Clark Mulcahy in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Copyright © 2018, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).