No female Black attorney’s journey in the legal profession can ever be categorized as simply a female experience or simply a Black experience. For Black women litigators, race and gender are not mutually exclusive; rather, they are intimately intertwined. The specific individual attributes combine to create remarkably challenging, often isolating, but ultimately enlightening experiences.
My nearly 25 years in litigation have been shaped, stirred, and sharpened by the multidimensional experiences I have had with people of different races, genders, and other attributes. Those experiences have humbled me and helped to make me, I hope, both a wiser lawyer and a more compassionate human. While I am linked to women litigators because of my gender and we are on similar career paths, the experiences I have encountered along the way have been uniquely different because of my race. For our diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts to foster lasting effects for Black women, we must as a profession acknowledge the unique individual experiences of each Black female attorney.
Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” in her landmark article Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. She noted that
Black women are sometimes excluded from feminist theory and antiracist policy discourse because both are predicated on a discrete set of experiences that often does not accurately reflect the interaction of race and gender. These problems of exclusion cannot be solved simply by including Black women within an already established analytical structure. Because the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated.
This concept of intersectionality discredits the belief that the challenges of all Black women, and arguably Black men, within the legal profession are the same or similar. In fact, two of my own distinct, and widely different, experiences still resonate because of the valuable lessons I learned from each of them.
First, I remember walking into the office of a particular white female partner in a majority firm. My heart raced with excitement. She was successful and highly respected. I constantly had been told how lucky I would be to associate with her. I was thrilled to work with another female litigator and eager to learn, prove myself, and become her protégé. I studied everything about her. To this day, I remember her distinct penmanship. Even now, decades later, I keep an ink pen at my desk that is similar to the one she used.
I thought I had found the perfect mentor. I was mistaken. Unfortunately, what lingers most about my experience working with her was how it felt to be marginalized and invisible. Even my experiences with the white female associates in my cohort were strained. Often we were grouped together as female initiates within the firm, but repeatedly I was excluded from their inner circle and outside gatherings that should have included all of us. Notably, those female initiatives never addressed the issues faced by Black women litigators. Not once.
In hindsight, I realize that the female partner had made time to manage me but not to truly and properly mentor me. Perhaps because of our racial differences, she did not know how to mentor me at that time. For the first time in my career, I became acutely aware of how preconceived notions about race, gender, and class would affect how others often treated me, long before those others worked with me or had any chance to get to know me as a person.
I also learned that my expectation that female attorneys would stick together was naïve. Perhaps it was the competitive culture of the firm that made that impossible; perhaps other factors contributed as well. Regardless, as a result, I often felt as if I had been recruited to an Olympic swimming team, yet coached differently from my peers and forced to practice alone.
I also remember, by contrast, my initial meeting, years later, with a specific white male partner at a different firm. We had nothing in common but our mutual desire to be good trial lawyers. In that preliminary chat, he asked me a key question that no other attorney had ever posed: “What do you need to succeed?” When I responded, he listened. Then he took deliberate steps to ensure that I had the necessary resources. For the first time, I felt seen and heard. Someone was willing to share the tools necessary for me to flourish, or at least for me to stand a chance at it.
I was fortunate. At that later firm, I received similar support from many other white male and female colleagues. That nurturing environment did not shield me from the sexism and discrimination that I consistently encountered in court or with other lawyers, but the difference was that then I had an outlet back at the firm, where I could discuss those issues with my peers and colleagues. While we did not always agree in our political or social views, we always could have—and, in my experience, we always did have—respectful conversations. What a difference that made.
The right work ethic, combined with the right tools and support, allowed me to flourish. I was promoted to the position of partner. That experience taught me that a supportive and inclusive environment is a key factor in one’s growth as a lawyer, not as just a Black female lawyer. It also restored my confidence that, despite my being Black, it was possible for me to develop genuine organic relationships that evolved into lasting friendships with others with different backgrounds from mine, including some who became my mentors and sponsors.
Those two contrasting examples are only a very small reflection of my varied multidimensional experiences as a Black female litigator. They surely do not define my entire legal career. They do, however, reflect how the intersection of race and gender can have very different effects on a Black attorney’s life.
Regardless of one’s setting, intersectionality is always a critical aspect of our ongoing discussions about diversity, equity, and inclusion. With that in mind, here are a few important insights, for whenever and wherever one begins that discussion:
- Expressly introduce and examine the concept of intersectionality to increase awareness in your space.
- Create safe zones for the sharing of individual lived experiences.
- Consider engaging a diversity consultant for training about intersectionality and its impacts in the legal profession.
My experiences with intersectionality are likely not over, but I am encouraged by the increased support for diversity, equity, and inclusion that I have seen among my peers in recent years. Yet, gaining a surprising ally always leaves an unforgettable mark. Many years later, the white female partner and I crossed paths again, in the most unexpected ways. We both studied to become diversity trainers. She later recruited me to teach an adjunct law school class. Then, one winter day, she invited me to have coffee to discuss a new adventure on which I was about to embark. She told me something I never expected to hear: She was proud of my accomplishments and had the highest respect for me.
I often wonder how different my experiences at that firm would have been if our discussion over coffee that day had been one of our first. Yet, our coffee meeting that day remains a fond memory. It is also symbolic of what must occur to truly understand how intersectionality impacts a Black female attorney’s life: We must willingly come to the table; we must respect each other; and we must be open and commit to do our part to ensure that the intersection of race and gender is a positive experience.