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September 2019

Why women of color want to leave law – and how firms can keep them

When ABA Past President Hilarie Bass sponsored an initiative on Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in Law in 2017-18 to study why women left the practice of law as they approached their 50s, in what should be the prime of their careers, the question inevitably arose: is the career trajectory different for women of color?

The ABA Commission on Women in the Profession engaged a researcher to find out.

They conducted focus groups in Atlanta, New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles as well as online surveys, and got the views of more than 100 women of color with at least 15 years’ experience in various practice areas to find out: What have their experiences been? Have they left the practice? Have they stayed? And why?

The research results will be released in the fall, but a standing-room-only program at the ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco in August, “Where are the Women of Color? Experiences of Women of Color in the Legal Profession,” shed light on some of their particular circumstances.

The focus groups revealed that women of color who have spent time in the profession like the work, don’t want to leave it and have largely stayed.

But—these women say that they face challenges including being stereotyped (by race and sex, particularly related to competence and capacity), being perceived as less competent, having less access to prime work assignments and lacking mentors and sponsors, ABA Past President Paulette Brown said.

Five other past and present leaders of prominent legal organizations joined Brown to detail these findings and share what law firms can do about it.

What is the key challenge facing women of color in the legal profession?

Alfreda Robinson, president of the National Bar Association and associate dean for trial advocacy at George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C., said the key challenge is pay inequity.

She said that women of color want to leave the profession because they’re not being treated like a white, male partner, and that leadership needs to be encouraged to change that. “If you’re going to work this hard, you might as well be in charge,” she said.

Mary Smith, secretary of the ABA and past president of the National Native American Bar Association, recalled working at a big firm and seeing women leave, supposedly to “spend more time with their family.” She said you have to “peel back the onion” to see that “the structure [of law firms] is such that women are leaving.”

What can legal employers do to increase the number of women of color in their organizations?

Cyndie Chang, past president of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA) and managing partner of the Duane Morris LLP office in Los Angeles, noted how the talk at law firms used to be about “diversity” and now it’s about “diversity and inclusion,” so it’s about more than hiring.

Inclusion is the critical part, she said, because it’s about retention.

She said to beware of tokenism, and make sure you can see that women of color are moving up in the firm structure. It’s a good sign if they’re not doing non-billable work, talking to bar associations or just going on pitches.

What can legal employers do to address the challenges facing women of color?

It starts with awareness, ABA past president Bill Neukom said, and understanding implicit bias.

He said the workplace is not as far ahead on this as the academy, and that every law firm should have an implicit bias series to understand root causes and to “create opportunities for this enormous trove of talent,” so it becomes part of the culture of the organization.

“Culture trumps everything,” he said.

Neukom said law firms need to be asked:

  • “How do you define a diverse workplace?”
  • “Do you have a critical mass?”
  • “What are you asking women of color to be like in your firm?”
  • “Do you want them to be like white men or do you want to revel in their differences?”
  • “Are you in it for the long run as a firm?”
  • “Will you take some losses and make some mistakes?”

He said there’s a difference between diversity and simply playing a role. You need to understand what the goal is, he said.

Two of the panelists indicated that law firm employers just aren’t doing enough.

Brown said she gets annoyed when she sees lists for “best firms for diversity,” and said it’s more accurate to say “better.”

No one does diversity particularly well, agreed Aracely Munoz, chair of the Commission on Latinas in the Profession at the Hispanic National Bar Association, but said law firms are at least trying – NGOs and in-house have worse records.

Mentorship, sponsorship and coaching are key, Munoz said.

Mentorship is 360 – from peers, supervisor, support staff – people you can go to for assistance. “Sponsorship is someone tying their brand to yours” and being a strategic advisor. She said women of color need a professional coach to help “navigate the culture you’re in right now, help you plot out what you want your future to be and help you execute that.”

“We don’t invest in ourselves,” she said, and urged women of color to do that.

As a woman of color ascends the professional ladder it gets lonelier, Chang said, and you need to be politically savvy and maybe have sharp elbows.

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