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Preet Bharara Tells Minority Law Students to "Work Harder." Is that the Best Advice?

The Careerist

August 10, 2017

Books-preet_bharara_06613At a summer cocktail party filled with bright-eyed law students, a young black woman posed this question to Preet Bharara, the  high-profile former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York: What can minorities do to overcome discrimination in the profession?

His answer: "The best way to overcome anything is to work really, really hard. You can overcome prejudice by sheer excellence of work."

Like other attendees, I thought it was a perfectly sensible answer. In a profession where putting in ungodly hours is a badge of honor, working hard would seem to be the sine qua non for success. Certainly, that's the advice minorities (and women) have been told most of their lives.

But here's the issue: Where has sheer hard work gotten minorities and women, particularly in Big Law?

"It’s pretty obvious that people who work hard don't necessarily rise to the top; it's never sheer intelligence," says Michele Coleman Mayes, general counsel for the New York Public Library, who's also served as GC for the Allstate Corporation and Pitney Bowes Inc. "When you do the numbers of who's in power, they are all white dudes!"

We all know that the legal profession remains a white man's game, so why do we minorities keep preaching hard work to each other as the solution?

I think there are two reasons. First, hard work is always the default advice for underdogs. (Really, are there that many choices?) Second, we want to believe that the legal profession is fundamentally a merit system. (Big Law's obsession with academic credentials, grades and other indicia of achievement suggests that the best, brightest and highest billing will prevail.)

On one level, Bharara's message is empowering: Anyone—no matter what race, ethnicity or social/economic status—can grab the brass ring through relentless effort.

But that message can be misleading. "I agree that minority lawyers must be excellent at all things, particularly in BigLaw," says Shearman & Sterling partner Paula Anderson. "That said, harping on being excellent is a disservice because it suggests a meritocracy." Another female lawyer offers a sharper reaction: "It wasn't harmful but naive. Maybe that because Preet is male—he assumes his work will always get noticed."

For minorities of both sexes, the hard work message also distracts them from what they really need to do: Self-promotion, networking and finding a powerful ally. "Focusing solely on lawyering is actually a mistake a lot of lawyers make when starting out, especially when they're first generation professionals," says Ari Joseph, director of diversity at Brown Rudnick. "They put their heads down and bill bill bill."

In fact, that can backfire, particularly for Asian Americans. "Working hard isn't always sufficient for promotion or advancement because of lingering stereotypes," says Goodwin Liu, associate justice of the California Supreme Court. Asian Americans, he explains, are often perceived as "being foreign, socially awkward or unassimilable."

What the work hard message fails to address is the insidiousness of bias—mainly of the unconscious variety. "I want institutions to acknowledge their own biases," says Mayes. Using her own career as an example, Mayes says, "I'm rarely the natural choice for a top position. No one picked me because just because I'm African American." But what propelled her to her first GC spot was that she had an ally: Sara Moss, Pitney's former GC, who pushed Mayes to be her successor. Moss encouraged the company to take a risk, explains Mayes, adding, "Sara was interrupting bias."

Having a mentor/sponsor is essential, but minority lawyers must be their own primary advocate. "If you're not getting plum assignments or being left out of client events, call it out," albeit in a "tactful, diplomatic way," says Anderson. "It's incumbent on you to pull people aside to make sure that [the biases] are fully aired."

Bharara probably wouldn't disagree. In response to my request for comment, his assistant said that he "believes that there was more to his response, including that people need to speak up, call out discrimination and create mentorship relationships in working environments."

So is the work hard message obsolete? Hardly. "Working hard is the bare minimum" to overcome any kind of bias, says Joseph, who heeds minority lawyers to be "strategic about their reputations" and "be their own brand manager."

But what happens if minorities work hard, play the game smartly yet still feel frustrated?

Don't knock yourself out. "Sometimes you can't overcome bias," says Mayes. "There are times when your ass needs to walk."

 vchen@alm.com

Comments

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I am not surprised to hear about bias and this kind of injustice. But I am a little surprised to hear that "Big Law" seems unconscious of its biases. In that academy, where I spent my career, bias was rampant, but institutions were afraid to act on their biases. In a context of liberalism many colleges and universities followed the dictates of affirmative action to the hilt. I am glad that they did, even though it cost me dearly. I do not think, however, that hiring and promoting women and minorities showed a lack of bias in these institutions. They simply understood that their brands would suffer if they remain male and white. I have a comic novel, half completed, somewhere on my computer, and in it I try to show that following affirmative action and biases can coexist quite comfortably--specially when cynicism works as a catalyst.
Nevertheless, if there is strong bias against minorities in Big Law, well, somebody oughta sue.

I am a great fan of Preet Bharara's because of the excellent work he did in my field, Cybercrime. He definitely worked hard, and is brilliant. I hope he has gone on to better things and will reach the pinnacle of success long term.
As for me, I have worked ten times harder all my adult life and it does not work for all women, particularly not those of my age (baby boomer who plans to work til I die). Why? Sacrificed marriage, children, time for friends to work so hard and still need the income! Am now looking into raising VC and starting my own consujlting firm because of blatant age discrimination in Asia, where I live and have worked for many years.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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