As tough as it is for black lawyers to rise to the top in law firms, it's even bleaker for black female attorneys. How much bleaker? Ponder this: Though black women have outnumbered black men in law schools for about two decades, they constitute only a fraction (.56 percent) of the overall number of black partners (less than 2 percent) at the nation's major firms.
Simply put, black women are the minority within the minority.
What's distressing is that even the most well-credentialed black female lawyers seem to fare poorly. According to a new Harvard Law School study of black alumni, black women have outnumbered black men every year but two since 1992 (in 2001, black women made up almost 78 percent of all black students). Yet, male black alums were more likely to be partners than their female counterparts (of those in private practice, 47.4 percent men versus 28.6 women were partners), and far more likely to have leadership roles (92 percent of all black alums who've served as managing partners or department heads have been men).
In the case of HLS, the problem isn't the pipeline. So why are Harvard Law alumnae so scarce on the partnership front? And if these high-credentialed women aren't making it, what does this bode for African American female lawyers overall?
The situation isn't hopeful, and the reasons are complicated. "Black women have all the problems of black men plus what white women face," says HLS professor David Wilkins, the author of the study about black alums. "What's not being heard is the intersection of race and gender."
Carolyn Edgar, a 1993 graduate of HLS, echoes that point. "We are still black and we are still women, and those two forces operate on us differently." Black men, she adds, "will get sponsorship, mentorship," provided they've passed muster with firm management. "If they're comfortable enough to keep him, he's likely to succeed."
Black female lawyers say they face a unique blend of racial stereotypes, sexism and disrespect. "You don't fit in," says a black female partner of a major firm. "If you're aggressive, you're angry; if you're too quiet, you must be stupid." She describes situations in which her abilities have been questioned—even by subordinates. "I've had a junior associate who questioned whether I was smart enough to manage him," adding that the attitude shows up in "a certain tone."
That condescension also creeps up in the women's interactions outside of the firm. A black finance partner at an Am Law 100 firm remembers the patronizing manner of opposing counsel who lectured her during negotiations, "this is just basic law." On another deal, she recounts her exchange with a white male partner from the South: "He said to me, 'Little lady, I need for you to stop talking dirty to me'—and I was just asking about the capital structure."
Ironically, black female lawyers say that it's older white partners who are sometimes most respectful and supportive. "The older ones treat me fairly," says Alanna Rutherford, a partner at Boies Schiller Flexner, who adds that she's had wonderful white, male mentors. "You shouldn't assume that someone will be an ally because of their race or gender," says Edgar, a former partner at Kirkland & Ellis, who is now an in-house counsel. "I've been in situations where black male partners did nothing to support me."
And how supportive are their white sisters? That gets a mixed reaction. Women's affinity groups "don't address race because they're dominated by white women," says one of the black female partners, adding, "it's not a conscious thing." Wilkins explains, "When we talk about women's issues, we're referring to issues of affluent white women."
So how do black female lawyers address the biases and challenges that they face?
Mostly, they don't. "You don't want a reputation of playing the race card or the sexism card," says one of the female partners. "You can't have an honest conversation about these issues," says Rutherford, because people will think, 'Oh my god, she's bringing up race and sex!' "
And that silence is what makes the problem even more painful. "It's demoralizing. It's why so many of us drop out," sums up one female black lawyer.