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The double-glazed glass ceiling

letsa-reba-col-sig“The bias that I face as a woman of color has become the elephant in the room. It means that I have to keep proving myself to clients, peers, superiors, and subordinates, even after each success. Sometimes others assume that I am not a threat because they don’t see me as a real contender for business or leadership roles. I am not seen as a viable team member until I prove that I am. I feel like I have to try harder than white men. I feel like people don’t give me the same tools to succeed or excel. I must make my own way without these tools for success.”

– Black Woman Study participant (early 40s)

As lawyers, we are masters of semantics. Often, the outcome of a case turns on the skill of the advocate in persuading the fact-finder of the interpretation of a word or phrase. However, certain words are often conflated in the legal profession (e.g., equal and equitable, and diversity and inclusion) to the detriment of the recruitment and retention of women of color.

The American Bar Association recently released the study “Left Out and Left Behind: The Hurdles, Hassles, and Heartaches of Achieving Long-Term Legal Careers for Women of Color,” which surveyed 103 women of color who were practicing law or employed in law-related positions by asking questions to elicit narratives of their experiences practicing law.

The study identified several roadblocks that women lawyers of color face in seeking opportunities for growth in the legal profession. For example, women lawyers of color comprise 15% of law firm associates but less than 4% of law firm partners. Women of color are leaving law firms at higher rates than any other demographic. These disparities demonstrate that, while opportunities for elevation may be equal, the tools and resources necessary for women of color to advance in the profession are not distributed equitably.

Why many leave

Nearly all of the study’s participants described experiencing bias and stereotyping and how it has affected their careers. According to the data, these microaggressions often present as excessive and disproportionate questioning of women of color’s legal analysis by superiors, colleagues and clients, and the requirement to demonstrate outsized achievements to obtain the same opportunities for leadership roles and elevation as our majority counterparts.

Several participants described a lack of institutional awareness and support for women attorneys of color, specifically relating to the distribution of assignments, mentorship and sponsorship. The concept of the “Old Boys Club” is hardly a new idea in any professional setting, but its effects on the legal profession are significant.

According to the participants’ responses, decision-makers in law firms may provide opportunities to associates with whom they feel connected – those who remind them of their sons, daughters and friends, but women of color often do not benefit from the opportunities provided through such connections.

Why some stay

Despite the career adversities faced by the study participants, their love of the law and the intellectual challenges it presents are factors driving women of color to remain in the legal profession. The participants expressed a sense of responsibility to remain in the field to increase representation for attorneys of color.

While the senior women lawyers of color may not have benefited from of mentors who looked like them, they deem it imperative to remain in the profession to demonstrate to younger attorneys of color that we can successfully navigate through the ranks.

Many participants described their inability to elude the far-reaching effects of other structural disparities, such as the race-wealth gap, and how the intersectionality of their identities led them to remain in the legal profession for financial reasons.

These stories show that when the legal profession fails women attorneys of color by allowing inequities in distributing resources and opportunities for growth to continue, everyone loses. The profession loses the valuable resource of individuals who genuinely enjoy the work they do, which results in more favorable outcomes for our clients, and a positive and collaborative work environment.

What can be done?

In light of the data collected through the ABA’s study, there are several concrete efforts that law firms can take to increase support for women attorneys of color:

  • Focus diversity and inclusion initiatives only on the numbers or recruitment but also on creating workplaces that promote the retention of women of color by ensuring they are invited to engage, are given key roles, and their ideas and suggestions are considered and implemented by firm leadership.
  • Hold leaders accountable for diversity and inclusion efforts. Acknowledge, reward and consider efforts made by partners to advance the careers of lawyers of color.
  • Create tangible and objective measures that will eliminate bias in decision-making, such as ensuring the equitable distribution of assignments and monitoring associate workflow. Doing so is essential to the long-term success of women of color.

To quote one participant, “We are responsible for creating a career and legacy that we can be proud of.” Promoting diversity and inclusion in the practice of law is an issue that clients prioritize when selecting a firm. Law firms should strive to build a stronger, more inclusive legal community, where no woman of color is left out or left behind.

Reba A. Letsa, an associate in the Baltimore office of Baker Donelson, concentrates her practice in litigation with a focus on labor and employment. She can be reached at [email protected].