July 31, 2020

Women lawyers of color share challenges of surviving in legal profession

Although women of color comprise more than 14% of all law firm associates, the percentage of them who are partners has remained stuck below 3.5%.

At the ABA Virtual Annual Meeting, a Showcase program called “The Paucity of Women of Color in the Legal Profession and Its Impact on the Administration of Justice” 
was sponsored by the Commission on Women in the Profession, was held July 30.

Social scientist Destiny Peery, principal with the Red Bee Group in Chicago, summarized the research she conducted for the recent report, “Left Out and Left Behind: The Hurdles, Hassles, and Heartaches of Achieving Long-Term Legal Careers for Women of Color.”

More than 100 women lawyers of color 15 or more years out of law school participated in online surveys or in focus groups held in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City. Although a representative sample of Native American women is not present, the report shows that women lawyers of color surveyed were far more likely to:

  • Want to leave the profession than their white colleagues
  • Be subjected to both implicit and explicit bias
  • Report factors that blocked their “access to success,” including
    • access to business development opportunities
    • being perceived as less committed to career
    • being denied or overlooked for promotion.

Peery said the women attributed their experiences to a “professional culture” that stereotypes in a subtle way. They felt they were seen as less capable and were held back in their careers by white men — and sometimes white women — and had to work harder to overcome that. They often stayed in their careers because they love the law and like the intellectual challenge.

The panelists shared their experiences, which provided glimpses of the challenges they have faced.

Cyndie M. Chang, managing partner at Duane Morris in Los Angeles and former president of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA), started her legal career at a small, “very white, male” firm where she was told she would never be a litigator because she was “too meek and quiet.” She said that perception lit a fire under her to persevere and become a trial lawyer.

Dorothy Capers, executive vice president and global general counsel at National Express LLC, Lisle, Illinois, also wanted to be a litigator, and joined a prosecutor’s office. It was heavily male, with few African Americans and fewer women of color. Capers said she had to fight to make sure that cases were fair, and “it was great that I was there … but it was tough.” She eventually became an in-house counsel.

Mari Carmen Aponte, former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador and former president of the Hispanic National Bar Association, said she knew she faced at least two barriers in the law profession: She was Puerto Rican and a woman. She didn’t know how she was going to overcome them “because there were no models.”

When she presented her first case in court in 1975, the judge asked her name and where she went to law school. Temple Law School was a “fine institution,” he said, until they let people like her in. She didn’t respond, and at the end of the case the judge told her “welcome to the club.” But, Aponte said, “I didn’t want to be in a club where I was going to be questioned about why I was there.”

She eventually left the law for a career in public service. However, the experience taught her that “nothing happens in life where there is not a purpose.”

Mary L. Smith, vice chair of VENG Group and past president of the National Native American Bar Association, also spoke on the panel, which was moderated by Eileen Letts, partner at Zuber Lawler & Del Duca LLP in Chicago, and Paulette Brown, senior partner and chief diversity and inclusion officer at Locke Lord LLP in Princeton, New Jersey.

5 ways the profession can do better

The speakers on “The Paucity of Women of Color in the Legal Profession” panel offered some ways to solve the professional dilemmas of women lawyers of color. Among them:

  • Launch a women’s leadership network. Some affinity bars offer programs that focus on soft skills such as leadership training, negotiating for yourself and finding your own voice. Networks among women of color can also offer support.
  • Look at your firm’s culture and how it impacts women of color.
  • Treat diversity and inclusion as a goal like every other business imperative. And tie compensation to the goals.
  • Bury “model minority myths.” Don’t buy into stereotypes of minorities, both good and bad. Combat unconscious biases and take implicit bias tests.
  • Seek diversity among law firms hired to do corporate work. In-house lawyers can and should force change.