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June 04, 2013 Articles

Female Attorneys of Color Continue to Struggle in Corporate Law Departments

By Angela A. Turiano

Whether in a law firm or corporate law department setting, female attorneys of color still face racial and gender discrimination that adversely affects their careers with regard to both advancement and compensation.

The American Bar Association Commission on Women (the Commission) recently completed Phase Two of its Women of Color Research Initiative (WCRI) which examined diversity dynamics of female attorneys of color in Fortune 500 corporate legal departments. Phase One of the Initiative, conducted in 2006, involved the same diversity analysis, but in a law firm setting. The focus of both studies was the effect of race/ethnicity and gender on the career mobility of female attorneys of color as they progressed through the four major stages of an attorney’s career: recruitment, hiring, retention, and advancement. While there were some distinctions between the experiences of law firm attorneys and in-house counsel, both phases of the study led to the same conclusion regarding career related bias; namely, that female attorneys of color continue to face obstacles as a result of gender and racial bias that prevents them from reaching their full potential in their chosen profession. The goal of the WCRI overall is to study the underlying systemic and cultural factors that continue to serve as obstacles to female attorneys of color in the advancement of their legal careers and to then identify practical solutions employed in all legal settings.

The current phase of the initiative is based upon the results of a national online survey of both current and former Fortune 500 in-house counsel of both genders and all racial and ethnic backgrounds. Of all of the groups surveyed, women of color reported the most consistent levels of discrimination across race, ethnicity, and gender lines in each stage.

Recruitment Similar to the results of Phase One, the survey results in Phase Two revealed that the majority of women feel that the least amount of discrimination occurs during recruitment and hiring, with racial and gender bias being more prominent at the mid to early stages of their careers. Indeed, the survey showed that women of color experienced the highest rates of attrition of all groups involved. Further, while women of color in corporate law departments are most likely to be hired at junior levels––albeit at salary scales lower than other groups––they are the least likely of all groups be promoted to management and/or executive positions.

The study notes, however, that the number of women and minorities entering law school––and therefore the legal profession––has declined significantly over the last 10 years. This decline in the “pipeline” of diverse candidates is exacerbated by the sluggish economy. With minority attorneys currently comprising only 10 percent of the legal profession, the study postulates that the reason diverse candidates are opting away from the law is, in fact, the lack of opportunity for promotion and/or disparities in compensation between male and female attorneys.

Retention As referenced above, research by the WCRI has shown that women of color experience the highest rates of attrition at both law firms and corporate law departments. However, the retention problem is particularly acute at law firms, where women of color comprise 17 percent of associates who leave after only three years. Reasons cited for this early departure include: lack of support; inability to establish a mentor/mentee relationship; feelings of isolation; and having to handle discrimination and stereotyping. In fact, corporate law departments have been able to use this dissatisfaction to lure women of color away from law firms with prospects of opportunity for advancement and a more appealing work environment. The women of color surveyed who made the switch from law firm attorney to in-house counsel noted advantages of working in a corporate law department, such as the opportunity to broaden their exposure to the business side of their companies, the ability to develop more intimate, meaningful relationships with clients, being able to escape the dreaded “billable hour,” and obtain an overall better work-life balance. Still, while women of color expressed their overall satisfaction with their decisions to leave law firms, their survey responses revealed that they were less satisfied then white male attorneys who made the same decision, and were more than likely to leave their Fortune 500 law departments for other opportunities. Survey respondents identified the following areas that represented obstacles to their professional growth: limited or no access to both internal and external networks; unfair performance reviews; ambiguous promotion policies; pay disparity; and, lack of mentorship. While pay disparity and lack of mentorship are “repeat offenders” in the careers of women of color, all of these factors affect when a lawyer decides to remain at their job or move on to find better opportunities.

Mentoring The inability to find mentors or sponsors to assist in the advancement of their careers was cited as a large problem among women of color survey respondents. Due to the high rates of attrition discussed herein, women of color are often viewed as “flight risks” or an employee not worthy of the investment of time, resources, and effort for career development. The study points out that this perception of women as “flight risks” is ironic in that it is this very investment in the advancement of their careers that would prevent them from leaving their legal positions. The study further points out that women of color are especially in need of a good mentor/sponsor due to the fact that they are more likely to come from less privileged backgrounds and often have less access to connections and/or or influential friends, family members, and business associates.

Indeed, the survey respondents who were women of color cited their strong desire for mentors and their frustration in the inability to obtain them; even finding formal mentoring programs to be ineffective. Notably, the majority of survey respondents overall, regardless of race and/or gender, felt that the most beneficial mentoring was achieved through informal channels or otherwise developed naturally over time. Of the female attorneys of color surveyed, 25 percent had formal mentors, while 22 percent reported having informal mentors. However, whether formal or informal, female attorneys of color were less likely to have a white male attorney as their mentor. Overall, while the study found that Fortune 500 companies offered more mentoring opportunities as compared to law firms, women of color still felt they were not getting the full benefit of mentorship. More specifically, these women felt that while they had access to mentors, the mentors were not truly influential in that they lacked the ability to truly assist them in maximizing their career success.

Compensation Pay disparity was cited repeatedly in this study as an obstacle that affects women of color throughout their careers. As income disparity by gender and race can be easily measured, it is a clear metric upon which progress toward workplace equality can be determined. The study points out that income disparity only compounds over time, affecting not only base salary, but bonuses, benefits, and retirement as well. Failure to pay female attorneys of color––and in fact female attorneys generally––on par with their male counterparts has an impact from day one of their careers, affecting recruitment, hiring, retention, and promotion, and ultimately contributing to the high attrition rate among these groups. In fact, the study pointed out that the income disparity between women of color and white males grows disproportionately over time and becomes more of a significant issue as attorneys progress in their careers. The racial and gender bias that can lead to pay disparity is only exacerbated by the fact that women generally are less likely to negotiate their salary than men. Adding to this disadvantage among female attorneys of color is that they are often the sole or primary provider for their families, making the fear of losing a job opportunity or a job they already have because they “asked for too much” an impediment to salary negotiations. The lack of good mentors to guide women of color through all aspects of their career, including salary negotiation, further diminishes their chances for salary growth, again leading to high attrition.

Advancement For the reasons discussed in the survey results, high levels of attrition have plagued female attorneys of color; this fact in conjunction with age old discriminatory promotion practices have resulted in a lack of diversity in management and high-level positions in the legal profession. In the survey, women of color reported consistent levels of negative bias across racial, ethnic, and gender lines and further indicated that they would leave their jobs with a Fortune 500 law department to obtain an increase in salary and to take advantage of an advancement opportunity elsewhere. The study points out that in seeking promotion, the connection between compensation and advancement becomes even more apparent. More specifically, as female attorneys of color rise in the ranks, compensation disparities reveal themselves in the form of salary negotiation, transparency in the promotion process, and client succession.

Conclusion Ultimately, the study concluded that while many women of color were able to find “better opportunities” for career advancement as in-house counsel, they still face similar obstacles to success as they did as law firm attorneys. The Commission believes that this phase of the WCRI will assist in leveling the playing field for women of color in in-house positions. The Commission further hopes that increased diversity in corporate law departments will lead to increased diversity in law firms. This is because corporate law departments are in the unique position to insist that their chosen counsel be represented by a diverse team of lawyers––including women of color––who are afforded the same opportunities as other groups.

The WCRI proffers solutions for the integration of women of color into law departments by providing strategies that will help achieve increased diversity as well as assist in the retention and professional development of these women. While these recommendations included specific practice points as to how to achieve each proposed strategy, the general recommendations were as follows:

  • Formulate and implement a comprehensive diversity and retention plan, actively communicating the idea that diversity breeds excellence, and that the two are not mutually exclusive concepts.
  • Develop a comprehensive plan for recruiting and hiring a diverse staff.
  • Offer regular and serious opportunities for law department members to work and socialize across racial, ethnic, gender, and generational lines.
  • Develop effective work-life balance and integration programs.
  • Develop policies that ensure that all members of the legal department have equal access to information and resources.
  • Develop systems that review assignments to ensure that all attorneys are receiving access to high quality assignments and training.
  • Developing transparent, bias-free performance evaluation systems, and clearly communicate benchmarks and performance standards to all members of the legal department.
  • Develop transparent strategies of equitable succession planning for when senior attorneys retire and implement processes that ensure that compensation decisions are made fairly and with transparency to avoid pay disparity.

Keywords: woman advocate, litigation, women of color; Fortune 500 legal departments; promotion; compensation disparity