Advancing Minority Women in Law: Lessons Learned from the Trailblazers

Topics: Client Relations, Corporate Legal, Diversity, Leadership & Retention Blogs, Talent Development, Women’s Leadership Blog Posts

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In June, I had the privilege of attending a program titled “Then & Now: A Look Back at Women Trailblazers & Forward—Has Equality for Women Been Achieved?” hosted by the Historical Society of the New York Courts and the New York City Bar Association’s Women in the Legal Profession Committee. The program was an excellent view into women trailblazers in law in New York State, including everyone from Kate Stoneman, the first woman to pass the New York Bar Exam in 1885, to the Honorable Jane Bolin, the first African-American woman to be appointed as a judge in New York State in 1939, to Christine Beshar, the first woman to be made partner at the law firm, Cravath, Swaine & Moore in 1971.

These stories were inspirational in spotlighting the strides that women have made in law, but the program also shed light on how much work there is to be done, and even more so for minority women lawyers.

The New York City Bar Association’s 2016 Diversity Benchmarking Report highlights this issue by providing some alarming survey results:

  • Nearly half of the City Bar’s signatory firms have no racial or ethnic minorities on their management committees and more than one-third have no minority practice group head.
  • Voluntary attrition continues to disproportionately impact minority attorneys with 15.6% of minorities leaving the signatory firms in 2016 — almost 50% above the rate of 10.6% for white men.
  • While 28% of associates are racial/ethnic minorities, just 9% of partners are.

And while strides have been made in leadership for women, with 18.6% of signatory law firm partners being women, only a meager 2.6% are ethnically diverse women.

We hear many buzzwords on how to make progress on retention and promotion for minority women lawyers, such as battling “unconscious bias” and promoting “sponsorship”. But what are some tangible lessons learned from women trailblazers to speed up the transformation process and to empower minority women lawyers? And not just at law firms, but in corporate legal departments, at non-profit organizations, in the judiciary, and in the government at large.

  • Mentorship and Sponsorship — All junior lawyers are advised to seek mentors and sponsors. However, they are more inclined to reach out to senior lawyers who look like themselves. Unfortunately, as the numbers above demonstrate, there are only a limited number of minority women senior lawyers to provide mentorship and sponsorship. Mentors and sponsors must take the form of white men as well, and companies must institute formal programs. A formal program does not always succeed but it has worked in my personal experience and it gives minority women an opportunity to start connecting with senior leadership.
  • Targeting Minority Women for Promotion — Most companies and law firms have transparent evaluation systems, such that a lawyer’s performance is available to those in charge of promotion. Instead of waiting for individuals to apply for more senior roles, for which minority women especially may think they’re underqualified, the internal Human Resources department should be identifying these women early on and targeting them for open positions.
  • Corporate Counsel Requiring a Diverse Outside Counsel Team — Many corporate legal departments have moved towards requiring their outside counsel to have diverse teams. However, this can lead to minority women being asked to accompany the team on a pitch but not actually being given substantive work on the team. Corporate legal departments should take this one step further — by calling the minority women on the team directly for advice, by asking for them to argue a motion, and by asking them to be present at meetings.
  • Combating Unconscious Bias — Law firms and corporations are instituting unconscious bias training for their managers, which is a great first step. But a transformation actually requires people calling out senior lawyers for favoring non-diverse lawyers on their matters or on their teams and requiring them to make a change.

Although minority women have come a long way in law, with one sitting on the Supreme Court today, companies cannot become complacent. They must take these and other concrete steps to operationalize the discussions around the topic of advancing minority women lawyers.