Although efforts to increase diversity within law firms have improved, the number of women of color in management and leadership positions continues to lag. In a world where women are expected to "lean in" and not talk themselves out of opportunities, how can women of color advance to the top positions within firms when so few of them are there now, and so few places have the right systems in place to ensure success?
A place where institutional value is sometimes only judged by the number of hours billed, law firms have inherent roadblocks and barriers to success. The long, daunting hours, the inadequate time with family and friends, and the high stress levels all factor into steady attrition rates among all attorneys, especially as Generation X and Millennials strive for greater work-life balance. Setting aside the natural departure of attorneys at firms, women of color have consistently left at much higher rates and reported higher levels of dissatisfaction concerning opportunities, integration, mentorships and sponsorships.
According to the 2009 Catalyst study, "Women of Color in U.S. Law Firms," women of color made up 25 percent of law firm associates as of 2009, but only 1.84 percent of partners. And despite many law firms' efforts to advance diversity, 75 percent of women of color leave their law firms by the fifth year of practice, and almost 86 percent leave by the seventh year. The American Bar Association's 2012 study, "Visible Invisibility," reported that women of color were more likely to be sidetracked by obstacles that limit their opportunities. The study found that female lawyers of color have the highest attrition rate of any group of attorneys, are more likely than any other group to experience exclusion from other employees based on racial and gender stereotyping, are most likely to feel the need to make adjustments to fit into the workplace, and are more likely to cite dissatisfaction with current work levels and access to high-profile client assignments relative to experience.
The Catalyst study also reported that women of color found that the top barriers to advancement within their careers included lack of similar role models; lack of influential mentors/sponsors; lack of informal networking with influential colleagues; not enough candid and constructive feedback; and lack of professional development opportunities.
But as women of color, we must not opt out of the process. We sometimes talk ourselves out of certain opportunities before they are even presented to us. Other times, we just look to keep our heads down to avoid stirring the pot or even being noticed. Some of us believe we are so lucky to have the job and receive a nice paycheck that we say nothing when clearly discriminatory behaviors occur. And unfortunately, we can internalize the perceived stereotype that we do not belong and then behave accordingly. In many circumstances, only a few women of color may be employed at any given law firm, but if we tell ourselves that we are not welcome, then we will be treated that way and shut out of opportunities.
The figures and issues are disheartening, but not new. So, what can be done to retain, develop and advance women of color in law firms? Accountability is the key. First, we must be accountable to ourselves. As many have said, be the CEO of your own career, because no one else will be as invested in you as you. Realize that some of the perceptions hindering our success may be of our own false imaginings. We are there because we belong; we did the hard work, received the high grades, interviewed with the best firms and chose the position best suited for us at the time. If we recognize an area where we can grow, we should proactively seek professional development opportunities — executive coaches, writing workshops, conferences — and then ask for the resources to take advantage of them. In fact, we should be seeking opportunities not only to address growth areas, but also to develop the professional networks and hard skills that will allow us to develop into highly-sought-after experts.
Of course, this self-confidence and self-advocacy can only go so far, and it's ultimately the responsibility of the firms and senior management to implement processes and initiatives to create a more inclusive environment conducive to growth and advancement. In "Visible Invisibility," women of color identified two categories of strategies that need to occur simultaneously for law firms to become accountable for improving the retention and advancement of women of color. One is the implementation of institutional changes in the way law firms operate. The other involves providing enough resources and support to empower individual women of color to develop the skills and network to succeed in spite of the existing barriers in law firms.
Unless there is a deep, firmwide commitment to diversity, coupled with a commitment to extend resources and services to women of color, then the numbers will remain bleak and the biases intact. To date, the fear of losing top-tier clients has been more influential in persuading law firms to embrace diversity than the mere good feelings associated with providing opportunities to those traditionally underrepresented. Several leading corporations have made efforts to hold their outside counsel accountable for their actual commitment (or lack thereof) to diversity by forcing them to put resources behind improving diversity on legal teams and requiring them to keep track of the diverse partners and associates who work on their matters. Many of these companies also require their outside counsel to seek out women- and minority-owned law firms when using local counsel or co-counsel.
Internally, law firms can implement certain measures to promote a culture of inclusion. The "Women of Color in U.S. Law Firms" report recommends, among other things, that firms begin to include senior leaders as active players in building and establishing inclusive workplaces; create opportunities for dialogue between firm leadership and women of color attorneys; and educate all attorneys, especially partners and other supervising attorneys, on how to recognize bias and stereotyping of women of color in the workplace.
Inclusion is not just the responsibility of one or the other, but both firms and individuals need to commit and be accountable to each other to make the necessary improvements in the retention, development and advancement of women of color.
Lucretia Clemons is a labor and employment partner with Ballard Spahr. She focuses her practice on a broad range of labor and employment litigation and counseling, corporate diversity management, training and investigations.
Rachel Keene is a litigation associate with the firm. She represents companies and individuals in various aspects of commercial litigation, employment practices, corporate investigations and compliance matters.