Survey Finds Black Women Lawyers Continue to Experience High Rates of Discrimination and Bias

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A recent survey found 70% of Black women lawyers had experienced or witnessed discrimination and bias in the workplace and 47% said they feel the burden of having to educate people on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) just because they are Black.

The study, conducted by the National Bar Association (NBA) Women Lawyers Division (WLD) and Kanarys Inc., a technology company focused on DEIB, evaluated the state of Black women attorneys on issues related to DEIB in their work environments. The NBA is the oldest and largest network of predominately Black attorneys and judges in the U.S.

During the summer and fall of 2022, 163 members of the NBA WLD and other Black women’s legal organizations were surveyed. The majority of respondents (48%) indicated that they worked in a law firm, followed by in-house (16%), government agency (12%), court (6%), and non-profit (6%) organizations.

“Black women’s value and lived experience must be recognized for more than increasing diversity in an organization, so we can be provided with equitable support and access and have a higher level of investment for success across the legal industry,” the NBA WLD leaders wrote in the report.

Legal profession rates below average

Overall, Black women lawyers rated their legal workplaces almost 10 points lower on DEIB issues than Kanarys’ national cross-industry average (49 vs. 58), which is a benchmark score for all organizations Kanarys has assessed.

While 66% of participants said they were comfortable expressing their identity at work and their workplaces display a commitment to improving diversity, just 65% intend to be working at their current organization in two years.

This finding underscores the importance of retention efforts, in addition to recruitment and hiring. Importantly, there was a 22-point gap between lawyers aged 26-37 and those 45-54 when asked about their plans to move jobs, with the younger attorneys indicating a significantly higher desire.

When it came to equitable treatment, 78% of respondents said their workplaces offered real opportunities to improve their skills. However, sentiment fell well below cross-industry averages when it came to things like accountability for discrimination, fair performance evaluations, workplace treatment, work allocation, and recognition.

Moreover, almost 25% of respondents said they did not feel comfortable intervening or telling HR about discrimination and bias concerns, and 29% said they felt that “white allyship at their organization is performative.”

Interestingly, respondents noted that mentorship programs, which can foster belonging and advancement opportunities, “show preference to in-group mentorship (e.g., male mentee paired with male mentor).”

This inherently excludes Black women from mentoring programs, the report said, due to the low number of Black women lawyers in leadership levels.

Roadmap for advancing Black women lawyers

Based on its findings, the NBA identified steps individuals and organizations can take to advance Black women lawyers.

These include things like expanding pipeline opportunities beginning in high school and through law school; investing in the hiring and promotion of Black women (especially in mid-level and senior/executive positions); using metrics to track and better understand the work experience of Black women lawyers; celebrating the success of Black women, inside and outside of the organization; and supporting inclusive and equitable work environments, like calling out discrimination and educating yourself on the oppression of marginalized communities.

“It is vital that legal organizations recognize the valuable talents, experiences, and perspectives that Black women lawyers bring to the profession, not just at the associate level but at senior and partnership levels,” said Julia Roundtree Livingston, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Manager at the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism. “Until organizations start making room for Black women at the top, it will continue to be difficult to truly influence a culture change, for this generation and future attorneys.”

What’s happening in Illinois

There are significant efforts in Illinois to support the advancement of Black women lawyers and other attorneys from traditionally underrepresented communities. In fact, four of Illinois’ nine law schools are led by Black women.

Here are three ways you can get involved:

  • Support pipeline programs: Just The Beginning – A Pipeline Organization (JTB) was developed by the Hon. Ann Claire Williams (Ret.) to encourage young people—from middle school through law school—to pursue careers and leadership opportunities in the law. JTB offers nationwide programs like the Summer Legal Institute, Middle School Law Camp, judicial internships, and Jumpstart, a pre-law school program in collaboration with the Commission on Professionalism and Illinois law schools.
  • Mentor diverse attorneys: The Commission on Professionalism partners with more than 100 organizations across Illinois on a lawyer-to-lawyer mentoring program, which pairs new and more established attorneys for a one-year term. In 2022, the Commission released a toolkit for participants that is specifically dedicated to mentoring underrepresented attorneys. CLE credit is available for mentors and mentees.
  • Take our Bullying in the Legal Profession survey: This September, the Commission plans to survey Illinois lawyers on their experiences with bullying in the legal profession to identify its impact and provide strategies for prevention. Keep an eye out for the survey in your email inbox.

Staying up to date on issues impacting the legal profession is vital to your success. Subscribe here to get the Commission’s weekly news delivered to your inbox.

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3 thoughts on “Survey Finds Black Women Lawyers Continue to Experience High Rates of Discrimination and Bias

  1. I have been in this profession for nearly 30 years. I had so much hope for our profession. As I am an optimist, I still have hope. But I see now that so much of what we thought was progress in diversity was merely performative, and it is disheartening. Perhaps the light we are exposing to these problems is a good step. But it definitely feels like this should have been done a long time ago. Underrepresented groups, including minorities, women, disabled, and non-native-speakers, work so hard to just be heard and respected. Continue the good fight.

    1. Hi Michelle,

      Thank you for sharing your perspective and adding your voice to this ongoing challenge. To truly change the culture, all legal professionals must be engaged in the conversation!

      Laura Bagby

  2. Discrimination? Are all facts for these lawyers the same? If a black lawyer studies social science or the arts and the white lawyers have degrees in engineering or accounting, who should be paid more and who will the clients want? I was acquainted with Rev. Jesse Jackson back in the 1970’s into the 1980’s and the black preacher movement criticizing the college majors selected by black students. Historically, the problem is rarely with the law firms or black lawyer’s white colleagues, the clients choose their lawyer.

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