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"My Daughter Should NOT Have To Deal With The Same Crap": Diverse Female Lawyers Speak Out

Vivia Chen

July 6, 2020

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“I actually have a file folder that says all the reasons I need to leave, and there are emails, and sometimes I print them up, and I put in there so that whenever I do leave and I do that exit interview, I don’t forget, not one thing that I could tell them as to why.”

Black female lawyer, ABA report

I’d be shocked if you don’t know this, but I’ll put it out there anyway: Female lawyers of color are not happy. In fact, 70% of them have left or are considering leaving the legal profession. And even for those who stick it out and make partner, the undercurrent of discontent runs deep.

That comes from the newly released American Bar Association report on female lawyers of color, which says: “While there are few women of color in the ranks of equity partner, those who stay are not necessarily staying because of job fulfillment.”

The report, “Left Out and Left Behind: The Hurdles, Hassles, and Heartaches of Achieving Long-Term Legal Careers for Women of Color,” looks at the experiences of 103 women of color who graduated from law school 15 or more years ago. It continues the 2006 ABA study on female lawyers of color, “The Visible Invisibility.”

What’s depressing is that not much has changed during the years, despite the escalating chatter about diversity and gender awareness. You know the drill: Women of color are still saddled with stereotypes and often excluded from choice assignments, mentorships, client development opportunities and other goodies for career advancement. The result: Women of color account for a paltry 2% of all equity partners.

So what’s new and intriguing in the report? Not so much the reasons they leave, in my opinion, but the reasons they stay in Big Law at all. Speaking as a lapsed lawyer of Asian descent, I can think of about 101 arguments for getting the hell out. But stay? That’s tough.

“I think women of color want to stay in the profession because they do enjoy it,” says Eileen Letts, one of the report’s authors (the others are Paulette Brown and Destiny Peery). “But at a certain point it gets tiring and exhausting. You know, we all keep that list of reasons for leaving.”

Besides actually enjoying the work, the report finds that women of color stay in Big Law for financial and cultural reasons.

Unlike their white sisters, they are more likely to be single and, in the case of Black women, oftentimes the prime breadwinners in their families. Many are also first-generation professionals who bear heavy student loans and other financial responsibilities. “This dynamic puts pressure on people of color who attain the professional status to make middle- or upper-class salaries to continue making those salaries in order to provide support to their families and communities,” says the report.

Moreover, some women of color feel the distinct need to serve as examples in a space where there are few. “This pull to be available as role models and mentors, in representational and interactive ways, was enough for some women to overcome their own personal struggles,” says the report. As one Latinx woman puts it in the report: “I refuse to leave because my continued presence is beneficial for younger generations. I also try to be the mentor that I wanted when I started out. My daughter should NOT have to deal with the same crap that I have.”

All of which points to an obvious elephant in the room: White female privilege—that is, women of color have very different experiences than those of white women.

Indeed, the report talks about how women’s groups, which tend to be predominantly white, are often blind to intersectionality. Women of color are told that “gender comes first and/or that race and ethnicity is a distraction from getting work done on gender.” And while white women “see the gender gap clearly” in pay inequality, they’re “less likely to realize that women of color are paid less than they are or otherwise experience the workplace or the profession differently due to the combination of gender and race.”

White women are less supportive of policies that focus on diversity rather than gender. The report says “only 52% of white women believed in making supporting or advocating diversity a criterion for compensation decisions for executives, but 67% supported legislation that ensures equal pay based on gender.”

Despite the differences between white women and those of color, the report’s authors caution not to lose sight of the real culprit. “The problem was not created by women or other groups but the people in power,” says co-author and former ABA president Brown. “We clearly need to have better working relationships between women of color and white women, but that shouldn’t be the focus,” Letts adds. “What’s important in the report is that women of color lack mentors and opportunities to play in the big league.”

But that’s been the same lament forever, so what makes the authors think that this latest report will have an impact? “The timing of this report couldn’t be better,” say both Brown and Letts. “There’s a united front now and a recognition of the mistreatment of people of color, particularly Blacks,” Letts says. “It’s not only about police mistreatment but how people of color are treated on the corporate side.” Adds Brown: “I’m hopeful that people are taking a deeper look at discrimination. I think right now people are more receptive.”

The powers-that-be are probably as receptive as they’ll ever be, but the question is what actions they’ll take and how bold those actions will be.

“By the time the next report comes out, I’ll be in old folks home,” Brown says. She adds wistfully, “And I’d like to see dramatic change by then.”

vchen@alm.com

Twitter: @lawcareerist

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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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