Changing the Future for Women of Color Lawyers

women of color lawyers pipeline programIf you ever attend a Black Women Lawyers’ Association meeting, you might be surprised by a tradition they have. Every meeting, every single person in the room stands up and announces three things: their name, where they work, and whether they are currently hiring or looking for a new job. It’s a different type of networking, but one that works. And this revolutionary approach to traditional lawyering continues with two former BWLA presidents, Tiffany Harper and Chasity Boyce, and their Diverse Attorney Pipeline Program.  

Women of Color Lawyers in the Pipeline

The numbers for underrepresented women of color lawyers are stark. According to NALP’s 2016 Diversity Report, black women lawyers comprise 2.32% of law firm associates and 0.64% of law firm partners. The numbers for Latina women lawyers are even lower, with Latina women constituting just 2.15% of law firm associates and 0.63% of partners.

Tiffany and Chasity aim to change those numbers for underrepresented women of color lawyers, one law school at a time. Their pipeline program’s goal is clear, to provide first year women of color law students with tutoring, mentoring and professional development, and help them secure a first year summer law firm or corporate job.  

DAPP focuses on law firms primarily, and for good reason. “For law firms, the numbers show that’s where the problem is,” explains Tiffany, now in-house counsel at Grant Thornton.  “We have seen exponential growth for women of color in general counsel and government. It’s law firms where the numbers decline.”  

The issue isn’t only the numbers of black and Latina women at law firms. It’s also that law firms are the critical entry point for any number of high impact careers in the law, like the federal judiciary, the justice department, and Fortune 500 companies. “If the door to a large law firm is shut for us,” Tiffany says, “then the doors to other places are often shut as well. These are the realities of our profession.”

The Diverse Attorney Pipeline Program

Now in its third year, here’s how DAPP works. Full-time first year women of color law students at certain law schools in Chicago apply for the pipeline program. If accepted, the students engage in weekly sessions focused on academic and professional development – black letter law tutoring, resume building, interviewing skills, among a host of others. The students are also given the opportunity to pair with mentors to help them throughout their law school journey. And of course, Chasity and Tiffany walk with them every step of the way.

How DAPP Helps Women of Color Law Students

DAPP women of color students

Chasity Boyce is now the Diversity and Inclusion Projects Manager for Skadden Arps. As a graduate of an HBCU law school, Chasity quickly realized the unique challenges facing underrepresented women of color lawyers, challenges that are often not addressed in law schools. Many young black and Latina law students are often the first in their family to attend law school. Some are even the first in their family to have a college degree. They may not have seen relatives work as lawyers, grown up around white collar professionals, or mastered the skills needed to succeed in today’s competitive legal market. “There are things you don’t know how to do,” Chasity says. “Especially if you’re a first generation lawyer.”

Danielle Lahee can attest to this. Currently a 3L at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, Danielle participated in the inaugural DAPP class. “I decided to apply to DAPP,” she says, “because I don’t have any close family or family friends who are lawyers. I knew that I did not have all of the tools and information I would need to be successful in law school.”  

Danielle’s Loyola classmate and fellow DAPP student, Carrera Thibodeaux, agrees. DAPP was the perfect match for Carrera, a first generation college and law student from a low income family.

I felt like it was very important that I find mentors who shared some similarities such as color and gender at a minimum because the legal field has such few black women lawyers.

For both women, DAPP taught them how to succeed at law school – read and outline cases, write essay answers – and also taught them how to succeed at the unwritten rules of the legal profession. “[I]n the legal community,” Danielle says, “knowledge, skills, and even clients are passed down from one person to the next. Because the one who can pass down these things is often a white man, it is less likely they will be passed down to a woman, let alone a woman of color … DAPP sees my worth and what I have to offer and passes down knowledge and skills so that my own knowledge and skills may be cultivated.”

Empowering Women of Color Law Students

The issue of seeing worth is one that has cropped up time and time again for Tiffany and Chasity. Both women fully recognize that their work goes far beyond tutoring their law students and preparing them for job interviews. It goes into their psyche and dealing with feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. “The thing that surprised me,” Tiffany says, “was that a lot of women of color start law school with a whole lot of self-doubt … They feel unempowered … like they don’t belong.”  

When Tiffany and Chasity reflect on their three DAPP classes, they see those empowerment victories, along with many others. One thing they both point to? Breaking the correlation between LSAT success and law school success. Several of the women law students who they worked with who had scores below what was ideal for admission, ended their first year ranked far higher than what their LSAT scores would have predicted. And then there are the smaller successes. Seeing their students network at social events, seeing them speak confidently in public. Tiffany and Chasity look at their students and realize that while they started them off, it was the ladies themselves who kept on running.

The Future of DAPP

Tiff and Chas women of color lawyersWhat lies ahead for DAPP? “Long-term vision,” Chasity says, “we want to be the first stop for firms that want talented women of color inside their organizations and for [the students] to be so ingrained in the pipeline that the firms say, “Not only do we want them for just the summer, we want to incorporate them successfully in the fabric of our organization.” Tiffany agrees. “We want to be a place where law firms can come to recruit talent and women of color. I would love to see DAPP be there, be in that space, and hold that place permanently in the legal profession.”

Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle Silverthorn

After spending seventeen years living in the Caribbean, Michelle undertook a number of around-the-world detours before ending up at the doorstep of the Commission, including four years as a general litigator in New York and Chicago. She remembers pretty much everyone she’s met in her travels but she would especially like to meet again the passengers on a January 2001 flight from Miami to JFK. At the pilot’s request, they donated enough money for Michelle, who had her wallet stolen, to get back to college safely. She would very much like to tell them all thanks.
Michelle Silverthorn
Michelle Silverthorn

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