23 Jun 2020

'Constantly having to prove myself' - ABA research highlights obstacles facing women lawyers of colour

New study based on in-depth interviews argues legal profession is yet to create truly inclusive culture

Paulette Brown

Past ABA president Paulette Brown, one of the report's authors

The number of black, Asian, Latina and multiracial women partners at US law firms has remained stuck below 3.5% for the past two decades, according to a report by the American Bar Association (ABA).

The study — Left Out and Left Behind: The Hurdles, Hassles, and Heartaches of Achieving Long-Term Legal Careers for Women of Color — combines data from earlier surveys and new interviews with women lawyers of colour to show they are more likely to want to leave the legal profession than their white colleagues, be subjected to implicit and explicit bias and be denied career development opportunities.

It calls for a more inclusive culture in the legal profession, pointing out that ‘any organisation can have all the “right” policies in place, but that organisation must begin to ask how those policies work on the ground and whether the workplace culture actually supports the use of these policies, practices, and procedures’.

‘Because [law] leaders are dominated by white males, they don’t know what to do with women of colour,’ said one of the interviewees, a black woman in her mid-40s. ‘The good ones want to be inclusive but have no idea what that means, and most are not willing to open up to get to know us or to include us in their worlds.’

Among the recommendations by its authors — social scientist Destiny Peery, past ABA president Paulette Brown and Chicago attorney Eileen Letts — are the adoption of best practices for reducing biases in decision-making, improved access to effective, engaged mentors and sponsors and an increased focus on inclusion, that goes beyond recruitment.

The report points out that the proportion of women of colour who are associates (14%) is much higher than the number who make partner.

‘It remains true that women and attorneys of colour leave the legal profession in large numbers,’ it says, ‘and it also remains true that there is still more that needs to be understood by the legal profession about what they are doing (or not doing) that facilitates or fails to prevent attrition of the very populations of attorneys they now spend so much time, energy, and money recruiting at the entry level.’

Judy Perry Martinez, ABA president, said the report shines a light on the double bind of gender and race for black, Asian, Latina and multiracial women lawyers, and outlines the value they add to law firms and the practice of law.

One survey respondent — a mid-40s black woman — said: “Having to deal with assumptions of inferiority, intellectual or otherwise, and constantly having to prove myself no matter how senior or qualified or experienced I am is something my white male peers do not have to do. It is psychologically exhausting.” 

Another survey respondent — a 39-year-old black woman — said: “I was not just a pushy woman but an aggressive black woman. If I suggested a new path, I was told I was being ‘argumentative’ even if the suggestions were valid. If I stayed quiet, I wasn’t adding value. My hair choices were scrutinised. I was called ‘articulate’ and ‘token.’”

The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month has led to a wave of initiatives by US law firms, representative bodies and legal campaign groups to combat racism that has been accompanied by a recognition that the legal profession needs to do more to improve diversity and inclusion.

Recent initiatives include the launch of a ‘coalition’ of representative groups to help lawyers and legal students from diverse backgrounds cope with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic led by Seyfarth Shaw and the Move the Needle Fund, a project involving five law firms which have committed to spend more than $5m exploring how to improve diversity and inclusivity in the legal profession.