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Black Lawyers Who Thrived Remotely Agonize Over Return to Office

March 30, 2022, 9:30 AM

Gabriel Yomi Dabiri, a Black lawyer, says that for many of the diverse attorneys he mentors at various firms, remote work during the pandemic was the first time they felt judged solely on their merits.

“I’ve heard that they felt like they’re in scenarios where they’re submitting work and being judged solely on the work and whatever kind of anchor that had been holding them back by virtue of race is not necessarily present in a remote environment,” said Dabiri, the office managing partner of Polsinelli PC’s New York City office.

Lawyers of color who spoke to Bloomberg Law worry that advantage could disappear as law firms begin urging employees to return to the office. For some, it poses a daunting decision: should they sacrifice comfort to go back to the office and get facetime with partners or continue to work from home and potentially miss out on career advancement.

“I just don’t know how it will affect my career yet,” said Savir Punia, a Big Law associate.

‘I Can Drink My Maté Tea with No Questions’

Black and brown lawyers said working from home they were able to avoid many of the racially insensitive comments and actions they experience in workplace settings.

“From the conversations that I’ve had with women of color and being a woman of color myself, we talked about how we can keep our bonnets on or our head wraps on at home with no question,” said a senior associate in New York. “I can drink my maté tea with no questions, for example, and when people who don’t drink it or see it often walk into your office and see it, it looks like weed, which leads to questions that are very uncomfortable.

“None of those conversations happen with remote work and it was nice to not deal with the microaggressions every day,” the associate explained.

Dabiri said working from home may have helped diverse lawyers perform better.

“There’s also that possibility that because microaggressions were taken off their mind for a period of time, they were free to focus on their work, resulting in better performances because they weren’t having to deal with that day to day,” he said.

Difficult Decisions

For diverse lawyers, the push to return to office is forcing them to make tough choices about their career.

“If I decide to stay fully virtual, does that impact my ability to get certain clients and assignments versus someone who might be in the office that a partner may prefer and say, ‘hey, go down the hall,’ or ‘hey, I have this cool project or opportunity, so come on my desk or do you want to join’ versus where they might have to actually think of me and call me before I could even get my hands on that project,” Punia said.

For younger attorneys of color, the power dynamic in an office setting could make it difficult to call out bias and explain cultural differences, according to the senior associate in New York.

“One conversation I’ve often had with white partners is around language and cultural understandings,” the associate said.

“What I’ve noticed during the pandemic is that a lot of people of color had to show up for their aunts and great uncles and the partner’s response would be something like ‘oh you’re so nice to extended family, but don’t they have their own nuclear family that could take care of them?’ ”, the associate added. “It’s just like, why are you asking me this question or why does this matter?”

The associate said the change could be stark for attorneys of color who started jobs during the pandemic and still aren’t comfortable with new colleagues.

PODCAST: Can Big Law Get It Right for Black Lawyers?

Test for Big Law

Over 40 of the 100 largest law firms have required attorneys to work some days in the office as of February, according to Bloomberg Law data.

One firm, Quinn Emanuel, however, announced in December that it adopted the permanent remote work model.

Greenberg Traurig Chief Executive Officer Brian L. Duffy said his firm “believes that being together a majority of the time is ideal to maintain connection, develop attorneys, elevate our excellence and most successfully collaborate.”

“However, an important firm value is the empowerment of, respect for and trust in its lawyers on the ground in each local market,” Duffy added.

Big Law firms offered support for Black Lives Matter in the summer of 2020 and pledged to increase efforts to hire, retain and promote lawyers from diverse backgrounds, launching new initiatives to advance those goals. As diverse attorneys return to the office, many of those initiatives will be tested for the first time.

Lawyers and human resources professionals said firms will need to show flexibility to maintain diverse talent.

The rollout of return-to-office protocol, including reducing microaggressions and making cultural sensitivity trainings more relevant, will show whether the industry can hold onto diverse talent, said Paula Edgar, CEO of PGE Consulting Group LLC, a firm focused on professional diversity, equity and inclusion.

“Think about the associates who have never seen their colleagues in person and now you’ve got to figure out how to interact and engage with these people, on top of the trauma you’ve experienced over the last two years and the anxiety you have over coming back to the office in the first place. That’s a lot,” she said.

Keeping Diverse Talent

The senior associate in New York said diversity and inclusion efforts need to be more realistic and address the real-world microaggressions diverse lawyers may face as they get back to the office.

“For some reason when training happens, you have the most ridiculous and obvious examples to share, and partners are always like ‘well, of course, I wouldn’t call them the n-word.’ And I’m always like that’s not how this shows up here, so why are we using this?” the associate said.

Edgar said some firms have used retreats to connect diverse lawyers and find ways to be more inclusive.

“Diversity retreats are being used as a vehicle to foster connection and discuss current needs and future strategy throughout the RTO process for law firms,” she said.

Firms that take those steps will be the winners in the fight for legal talent, she added.

“There’s so much opportunity right now that people are making the decision to not manage some of the lack of accountability or the fixed mindset versus ones that are open and are thinking about this in a more thoughtful and inclusive way,” said Edgar.

“Those firms who aren’t doing that are losing their associates.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ayanna Alexander in Washington at aalexander@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Meghashyam Mali at mmali@bloombergindustry.com; Andrew Childers at achilders@bloomberglaw.com