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Women of Color in Law: Visibility Does Not Equal Advancement

Oct. 1, 2020, 8:00 AM

A recent ABA study uncovers disturbing stagnation in advancements for women of color in the legal profession. In fact, women of color remain in virtually the same presence in equity roles since 2006 while their white counterparts have experienced slow but steady evolution.

The study reports that despite the “fact that women of color now comprise almost 15% of all associates, the percentage of women of color partners has remained stuck below 4%”.

Unfortunately, in the struggle to attain greater visibility of women in leadership positions, it is easy to mistake advancement for progress. The greater numbers of women moving into equity and leadership roles overall is an achievement worth heralding, but the virtual non-inclusion of our minority sisters in the march forward is a persistent symptom of disease.

Showing Women in Partnership Chairs Is Not Enough

This is particularly poignant when large firms showcase women filling partnership-meeting chairs to disguise the otherwise palpable absence of diversity in those chairs. Women of color who raise concerns over non-advancement, bias, or company culture can then face having to overcome defensive posturing that points to the new numbers of women in leadership as “proof” of commitment to changing trends.

Because women in the profession have all too frequently felt the sting of preferential treatment of male counterparts, it is not always easy to remember that the depth of bias and discrimination innervates at levels far beyond gender.

A female colleague once spoke of her own advancement over a more experienced litigator of Asian descent by saying, “I was so thankful to finally get asked to play in the game that it didn’t occur to me to wonder who was still on the sidelines.”

In many ways, the singular pursuit of advancement can deteriorate and have profound consequences on minority women. A law professor once termed it the “crab-in-a-barrel-syndrome” where women so fervent in pushing their way to the top could only often do so at the expense of the other women struggling alongside.

Promotion, Retention More Important Than Recruitment

This is partially why policies to simply recruit minority women are gravely insufficient. Long-term solutions concentrated on retention and growth that keep and promote women of color could serve to slow the often-staggering rates of attrition. So, too, might the acknowledgment that women and women of color shouldn’t be lumped together and tallied in the box labeled “progress” just yet.

Importantly, it is not just in large firms where women of color experience a vacuum at the top. As a young lawyer over 20 years ago, I became keenly aware of the abysmal numbers of women in the civil litigation arena on the plaintiff’s side. Those actually trying cases, especially high profile or high value cases, were raised to near unicorn status. How was it possible that in a state with nearly 30 percent Latino population and a law class of 51% women, that in the sea of plaintiff civil lawyers I noted fewer than five active women and none of them of color?

Back then I was content to practice in the small but bustling firm where I was happily unknown, felt valued, and had decent opportunities for advancement. It wasn’t until a male mentor called and insisted that I join the local association for justice that this tiny box of complacency was upended.

For about a month, I persistently avoided his calls and deflected his urgings to join the board of directors. One day, exasperated by my foot-dragging, the brotherly voice matched his stubbornness against my own and he huffed, “You need to take a leadership role among the trial lawyers ... you owe it to the women who come after you.”

Those words haunted me initially. They also changed the trajectory of my entire next decade. They became the frequent reminder of the privilege and opportunity afforded me through the crusade of great women before me and the obligation to grow the legacy of Amazons and simultaneously include greater racial diversity among our ranks.

In candor, it was a great number of male colleagues that supported my evolution by being not just welcoming but downright adamant that the seats next to them reflect a meaningful future for women lawyers. As a female lawyer I benefited from practical measures like woman-to-woman referrals, female-owned/operated firms, networking, and co-representation affiliations.

All in Equity, Leadership Roles Need to Commit

When it comes to promoting women of color, similar practical and tangible policies that promote retention, advancement and opportunity for women of color are meaningful and necessary steps towards change, but the rapid and widespread evolution is more likely to follow when both men and women in roles of equity or leadership recognize this is not a woman-of-color-problem. This is a legal profession problem.

We deprive our clients and ourselves of the significant contributions of a diverse collective by engaging archaic markers of success and legal identity. To restore a balance requires the proactive behavior of both genders to encourage policies of advancement, retention and exposure of our racially diverse women.

It is not enough that policies welcome women of color. It is only when those already in leadership roles insist on the presence and involvement of women of color that the needle will finally begin to budge beyond incremental change.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Author Information

Ilya E. Lerma is the founder of the Law Offices of Ilya E. Lerma where she focuses on representing brain-injured victims, and is a trial consultant with Trial Structure. She has lectured at conferences, including the Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles, the Women Trial Skills Conference, the Alliance of Women Trial Lawyers, and AAJ in New York for the Weekend with the Stars.