The ABA Men of Color Project: Community and Belonging Relieve Feelings of Isolation and Perfectionism

Topics: Corporate Legal, Diversity, Law Firms, Leadership, Leadership & Retention, Men of Color, Talent Development

Black BigLaw Pipeline

WASHINGTON, D.C. — More than 100 attendees — men from all racial backgrounds — bonded over the common experience of being a minority in the legal profession at the first-ever summit held by the American Bar Association’s Men of Color Project at Howard University in May. The summit also was well attended by ABA executives, including the president and the head of the house of delegates.

David Morrow, who co-founded the Men of Color Project, described the kinetic energy of unity and community during the summit, elaborating on the sense of support and belonging the summit provided for participants:

  • Community — The most consistent piece of feedback from attendees about the summit was the “feeling that you are not alone,” Morrow says, citing that within the legal industry, there is a feeling of isolation when you are the only or one of a few people of color within your workplace.
  • Relief from the pressure of perfection — In addition, this feeling of seclusion often is exacerbated by the pressure to be perfect because of the common feeling that men of color experience in that they represent their entire ethnic group in mostly white groups, Morrow says. “It impacts mental health in the long run and so, no matter what group you are in, there is a common thing about being isolated and not knowing how to navigate that,” he explains, adding that having a sense of kinship and community at the summit alleviates the stress and provides a mechanism for ongoing support once the attendees are back in their workplaces.

The Men of Color Project summit also offered two panels — one on sponsorship and mentoring, and one on vision development and execution. During the sponsorship and mentoring session, the panelists explored the differences between the two roles and how important each one is for the success of men of color within the profession. To demonstrate how critical having a sponsor is, one panelist indicated that the endorsement of his abilities by an influential partner was a game-changer for his career and as a result, gave him more legitimacy.

Men of color

David Morrow

Another point made during the sponsorship panel was the need to do excellent work. “You have to be good at what you’re doing, and you have to take ownership over what you’re doing, so that somebody then notices you,” explains Morrow. The theme of excellence reoccurred throughout the session; and for men of color, excellence is an absolute must. “The margin of error for men of color and people of color in white spaces is very small,” Morrow adds. “And so you have to do great work from the very beginning or no one is going to endorse you.”

On the next panel on vision development and execution, Morrow says that is it vital for men of color to know that they have multiple paths to take within the legal profession beyond the traditional path of joining a law firm and working your way up from junior to senior ranks and ultimately reaching partner. There are paths that one can carve out on his own, explains Morrow, and to go this route requires developing a vision of what you want with a willingness for experimentation and trying different options.

Indeed, graduating from law school in the years post-recession of 2008 taught Morrow that nothing is guaranteed. “I don’t know what tomorrow looks like,” he says. “Jobs could end. I could move. My health could deteriorate… I won’t make decisions out of fear.” Recognizing his path is a bit counter-cultural in communities of color, he advocates for more men of color to pursue this route if they already know that a traditional path is not for them. However, Morrow explains that in most communities of color, more traditional paths are expected and encouraged out of necessity because “most of our history in this country has been filled with instability. And the traditional career decisions, such as having a 9-to-5 job, provided stability, predictability and security.”

Bakari Sellers, the final keynote speaker during the summit, is an inspiring example of a male lawyer of color who achieved a lot early in his career and advised attendees at the summit to do two things:

  • take risks early in your career; and
  • have confidence in knowing that you have a right to be there.

When Sellers ran for office against a well-established incumbent for the state senate in South Carolina, most said that he could not do it, he recalls. His fundamental belief was that he deserved to be there, and committed to working harder than his competitor. Sellers won that election, becoming the youngest African American ever elected to a state house.

Morrow agreed, saying that belief that you belong, even in unfamiliar situations is very important for people of color. “It’s difficult to have that confidence when you don’t see people who look like you in positions of power, however,” he says. “But that is why the Men of Color Project is critical so that early-career men of color have examples in leadership to stay inspired with the underlying belief that they can achieve [the goal] too.”