Women of Color Face Unique Struggles Working for Large Law Firms

Yarelyn Mena and Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

Women of color are leaving large firms at an alarming rate. According to the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession (the”Commission”), 85 percent of minority female attorneys in the United States leave large firms within seven yeas of hiring. This high attrition rate is largely due to the unique problems that women of color face at large law firms.

The Commission’s research concludes that women of color leave lucrative large firm jobs because they feel forced out due to discrimination, isolation and constant microaggressions. In 2003, it found that “in both law firms and corporate legal departments, women of color receive less compensation than men and white women; are denied equal access to significant assignments, mentoring and sponsorship opportunities; receive fewer promotions; and have the highest rate of attrition.” These problems force women of color to leave big law, resulting in the same problems for future generations, causing perpetual underrepresentation.

Having someone who relates to and supports you is an invaluable asset that women of color particularly struggle to find. Typically, associates advance at large law firms due to a partner’s endorsement. A partner’s insight and support can be instrumental for a successful legal career. The ABA Journal states, “Mentoring is… more critical to a lawyer’s success and mobility than the number of billable hours one generates.” Because partners are still predominantly male and white, and people generally identify themselves most strongly with those similar to them, women of color often do not have the opportunity to cultivate a relationship with partners at the firm, leaving them socially and professionally alienated.

Additionally, most existing diversity initiatives leave out women of color. Arin Reeves—president of Nextions, a Chicago-based consulting firm studying unconcious biases in corporate America—agrees: “Most gender strategies affect the majority of people in that gender category, which are white women. Racial and ethnic strategies are created around biases involving minority men. But women of color have the highest attrition rate. This is a group impacted by both gender and racial bias, so they will be impacted at twice the rates.” In sum, the women promoted tend to be white and the minorities male; therefore, women of color are left out.

In response to the multitude of barriers women of color face, law firms have been pushing to implement diversity initiatives; however, these efforts have not done enough to solve the problem as they only aim to hire more women of color but not change their employment experience or promote them. The result is an overwhelming majority of white males making up equity partners at law firms (women make up a mere 18 percent, most of whom are also white).

Widespread mentorship initiatives have the potential to prevent feelings of isolation, lack of partner sponsorship and unequal assignments, thereby keeping the talent of women of color attorneys in these firms and promoting their upward mobility. Law firms, always eager to recruit capable and intellectual individuals, must do more to keep talented women of color.

If you have felt discriminated against for your gender or race, please contact The Harman Firm, LLP.