Why Women of Color Are Walking Away from Law

women of color attorneysNot much has changed for women of color attorneys at law firms over the past 14 years, according to a study released last month by the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Commission on Women in the Profession.

Despite the legal profession’s increased diversity efforts, the percentage of women of color partners remains stuck below 4%. Moreover, women of color face the highest rate of attrition from law firms, which struggle to create inclusive cultures where the contributions of women of color are recognized and rewarded.

In Left Out and Left Behind: The Hurdles, Hassles, and Heartaches of Achieving Long-Term Legal Careers for Women of Color, researchers intended to study the experiences of women of color attorneys who had practiced for more than 20 years. However, identifying women who fit this description was challenging.

In the end, researchers explored the input of 103 women of color who had graduated from law school 15 or more years earlier. Here’s what they found.

Bias and Stereotyping

Nearly all survey participants said they had experienced bias and stereotyping during their legal careers. Participants expressed frustration at a lack of awareness and the subtle ways that biases and stereotyping can manifest, like microaggressions and microinequities.

The research highlighted the importance of considering the different experiences of women of color across racial/ethnic backgrounds, and the fine line women often walk to avoid confirming negative stereotypes.

“Many men still see minority women (especially Hispanic women) as docile and assume we will follow their lead in order to keep our job.” —60-year-old Hispanic/Latinx woman

“The African American woman was being marginalized because the men perceived her as being in their face and being too outspoken. The Asian American woman couldn’t get noticed, couldn’t get a seat at the table.” —68-year-old Asian woman

A Lack of Support

While participants said that the legal profession is paying more attention to women’s issues, the effects are often disproportionately realized by white women. Moreover, participants pointed out continued inequality in the distribution of workplace resources and opportunities, like prime work assignments and highly qualified mentors and sponsors. These relationships, the report says, continue to form in “male-dominated spaces, such as the golf course.”

When it comes to women supporting women, participants reported that white women often prioritize issues that benefit them, excluding the distinct challenges of women of color.

“Despite working on a team headed by a woman, there existed (in my opinion) a bias towards the white women on the team who often received better assignments, better mentorship, and greater visibility.” —41-year-old Black woman

To Stay or Go

In the ABA’s sample, 70% of the women reported leaving or considering leaving the legal profession. Participants pointed to reasons including feeling undervalued and/or facing barriers to career advancement, and expectations that interfered with their ability to manage their personal and professional responsibilities.

Women who decided to stay in law cited three primary reasons: (1) they enjoy the work (often despite the environment), (2) it makes financial sense, and (3) aspects of their personal and familiar lives may require or encourage it.

The report points to the different family structures and priorities of white men and women and women of color, which often aren’t recognized in legal environments.

For example, research has shown that women of color are more likely to be the breadwinners and to have extended family responsibilities. Moreover, women of color are less likely to use a babysitter or cite a spouse or partner for childcare needs. Black women in particular are more likely to view participating in community activities as a personal responsibility.

“Nothing can actually stop me. I went home and cried angry and indignant tears often. I love what I do, and I worked very hard to get where I am. There is literally nothing they could have done short of killing me that would have resulted in my quitting the law.” —55-year-old Latinx woman

“Support systems for women of color often come from familial support, but often the family is pulling financially rather than pushing. Thereby, forcing a ‘no option’ scenario [where the only choice is] to move forward in doing the work, caring for family and friends with less support.” —42-year-old Black woman

It Starts in Law School

Disparities between the experiences of women of color in law and their peers happen in law school too, according to a recent study from the Center for Women in Law and The NALP Foundation. The study evaluated the law school experience of 4,084 students from 46 U.S. law schools, including 773 women of color.

Less than one-half (40%) of women of color rated race relations in their law school positively, compared to 70% of white men, 59% of men of color, and 58% of white women. In addition, more than half of women of color (52%) reported interactions with students and/or faculty that negatively impacted their academic performance, compared to 21% of white men. Moreover, women of color were 20% less likely to feel comfortable raising their hand in class than white men.

Thirty-one percent of women of color reported seriously considering leaving law school, compared to 26% of men of color, 24% of white women, and 22% of white men.

“…female law students of color lack access to the same level of resources and prospects as their male and white female counterparts—leaving women of color at a particularly pronounced disadvantage as they begin their legal careers,” the study said.

Retaining Women of Color Attorneys

To effectuate change, the legal profession must move beyond policies and practices on paper and start shifting the culture and experience of the legal profession, according to the ABA study’s authors.

Concrete recommendations from the study for promoting and retaining women of color attorneys include:

  • Adopt best practices for reducing biases in decision-making. The legal profession must seriously consider who is making decisions, how they’re making decisions, and whether these decisions adequately consider the potential for biases.
  • Improve access to effective, engaged mentors and sponsors. The profession must cultivate substantive and engaged relationships with mentors that have the power to clue women of color attorneys into important workplace dynamics and effectively advocate for them.
  • Go beyond recruitment to inclusion. While representation matters to women of color, to increase retention the profession needs to foster workplaces and professional cultures that value their unique needs and priorities.
  • Incorporate an intersectional approach to addressing diversity and gender. A continued lack of consideration for the differing experiences of women of color and white women will cause the legal profession to fall further behind on diversity and gender efforts.
  • Create a more inclusive culture in the legal profession. Law firms must examine whether their workplace culture supports the use of policies, practices, and procedures that promote diversity and inclusion.

Is your law firm supporting long-term careers for women of color? Share how in the comments below.

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Laura Bagby
As Communications Director, Laura develops and executes strategy to elevate the Commission among attorneys and judges in Illinois. Laura leverages communications channels to educate and engage with the legal community in support of the Commission’s mission of increasing civility and professionalism to enable the administration of justice. When she’s not in the office, you’ll find Laura taking in a show at one of Chicago’s top-notch theatres, planning her next international trip or hanging out in Lincoln Park with her one-eyed Chihuahua, Manny.
Laura Bagby

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Laura Bagby
As Communications Director, Laura develops and executes strategy to elevate the Commission among attorneys and judges in Illinois. Laura leverages communications channels to educate and engage with the legal community in support of the Commission’s mission of increasing civility and professionalism to enable the administration of justice. When she’s not in the office, you’ll find Laura taking in a show at one of Chicago’s top-notch theatres, planning her next international trip or hanging out in Lincoln Park with her one-eyed Chihuahua, Manny.
Laura Bagby

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