Why Black Women Are Leaving Big Law (And What Firms Can Do About It)

Black Women are Leaving BigLaw

Credit: BigStock

A recent ABA article stated that 85 percent of female attorneys of color will leave Big Law before making partner. This shockingly high exit rate does not come from a lack of ambition. (A recent study found that many women of color have higher career ambitions than white women and men of color.) Neither are these women leaving because they are unqualified. Rather, study after study has found that over time, the stress of working in an overwhelmingly white and male profession becomes too much for women of color to handle. So, they leave Big Law to preserve their sanity. This post will look at some of reasons why Black Women are leaving Big Law and what firms can do to keep them.


Black Women in Big Law: By the Numbers

When it comes to Big Law, women of color are missing in action. NALP’s most recent annual report on law firm diversity reveals truly dismal state of affairs for women of color. The report found that in 2018, women of color were just 13.52% of all Big Law associates. While that number is grim, it is worse in the leadership levels. Last year, women of color were only 3.19% of all partners. These low numbers support NALP’s claim that women of color are “dramatically underrepresented” in the partnership ranks.

While all women of color are underrepresented and undervalued in BigLaw, African American women are rare indeed. According to NALP’s 2018 data, Black women were just 2.55% of all associates last year. This number was slightly higher than the number of Latina associates, but far less than the number of Asian American junior attorneys. (Latinas and Asian Americans were 2.45% and 6.64% of all attorneys, respectively.) Worse, the 2.55% of Black female associates in 2018 was a steep decline from 2009, when Black women were 2.93% of associates. Other groups have seem increases during the same time. So, not only are the numbers for African American women low, they are heading in the wrong direction.

The situation is both better and worse for Black women in the partnership ranks. In 2018, less than one percent of all law firm partners – 0.68% – were African American women. The good news is that this number has steadily increased since 2009. However, African American women are less likely to be partners than women of other races. Latinas were 0.77% of all partners while Asian American women were 1.38%. While none of these numbers are cause for celebration, it’s clear that Black women are fighting an uphill battle where partnership is concerned.


Racism and Sexism in Big Law

Though every individual is different and every woman leaves Big Law for her own reasons, there is one common thread. As one ABA report stated, “The combined disadvantages of race and gender among women of color explain at least in part why law firms have less success retaining women of color than either men of color or white women (emphasis in original report).” So, understanding racism and sexism in Big Law is key to understanding why Black women are leaving Big Law.

Racism in the legal profession is not a new issue. As this blog has often mentioned, law is one of the least diverse industries in America. This is particularly true in Big Law, where attorneys of color are far less likely to be found than in other practice areas. The situation is even worse for Black attorneys. Though NALP found that the number of Asian American and Latinx BigLaw attorneys has increased steadily over the past twenty years, it also found that the number of African Americans slowly declined over the same period.

Not only are African Americans underrepresented, but they also face explicit and implicit bias each day. Black attorneys find it difficult to feel positive about their work when law firm recruiters publicly remark that that Black attorneys lack work ethic or they find out that their firm has a “Black list” that targets African American employees for termination. Even when the bias is not overt, implicit bias exists. For example, a recent study found that partners grade memos more harshly when they think the employee is Black. In short, racial bias in the legal profession is real.

Sexism is also a real issue for women in Big Law. Women face hostility every day in firms. Currently, a major firm is being sued for maintaining a “fraternity culture” in its offices.  In a recent ABA study, 49 percent of women said that they’d been sexually harassed. Another 74 percent said that they’d been subjected to demeaning comments. Beyond the studies, women are more likely to be harassed by clients, to be punished for taking maternity leave, and to be paid less for doing the same work. So, like racism, sexism in the legal world is a real problem.

Since both racism and sexism are issues in BigLaw, it makes sense that those who must deal with both racism and sexism would find it difficult to succeed in most firms. Racism and sexism affect the way African American women in the legal profession are viewed and treated. According to studies, here are some of the problems women of color face more often than white men, white women, or men of color.

  • Women of color are more likely to be mistaken for non-legal personnel.
  • Women of color are expected to prove their worthiness again and again on every new project.
  • Women of color are excluded from mentoring and other social advancement opportunities.
  • Women of color were steered toward clients only when their race or gender would be an “asset” to the team.
  • Women of color are paid less than other groups.
  • Women of color are denied access to premium assignments and clients.

In short, women of color in Big Law get too much hostility and not enough support.


What Law Firms Can Do to Help Black Women Succeed

Most Big Law partners and associates are white and male. Nevertheless, with a little effort, firms can create a culture that helps attorneys from all backgrounds succeed. In fact, some firms – even those with past diversity problems – have already taken the necessary steps to change the firm climate for the better. Here are five tips to help women of color succeed. As a bonus, most of these efforts will benefit all employees.

  • Include Women of Color in Decisions

Women of color at all levels are often excluded from decision making committees and roles. Make sure that your firm hears from and listen to all voices before making decisions. This is particularly true when it comes to long-range or strategic planning. Nothing will change if the same people continue to make the decisions. Fresh perspectives will help your firm grow and change.

  •  Train Attorneys, Especially Evaluators and Interviewers in Diversity Best Practices

Most lawyers think they don’t need diversity training because they wouldn’t knowingly break the law. But you don’t have to break the law to offend someone. The firm should clearly state its values with respect to diversity and inclusion. The firm should then train all attorneys to behave in accordance with those values at all times. And because no workplace is perfect, the firm should have a clear and swift policy for dealing with those who act against its values.

While all employees must be trained, those who evaluate applicants or current associates should get additional training. Train these managers to recognize their own biases so they won’t influence their view of employees or candidates of color. Women of color cannot make partner if they get poor evaluations. Make sure that they are evaluated fairly.

  •  Track Assignments

One of the knottiest problems is the easiest to solve. Though everyone knows that social networks matter in firms, firms must also ensure that all employees get a chance to shine. So, firms should track who gets assignments and how they got them. Parcel out work in a transparent manner that gives everyone a chance to ask for it, rather than through social channels.

  • Plan for the Future

If your firm has few women of color, take a moment to think about why this is the case and what could be done differently. Conduct an honest assessment of the firm’s culture. Get your affinity groups involved in the process. Set a goal to double the current number of women of color and make a plan to do it. Even if the firm misses the mark, setting and working toward a diversity goal will move the needle in the right direction.

  • Hire a Diversity Consultant

If your firm remains stumped about how it can improve, get outside help. A diversity consultant will bring a fresh pair of eyes and new insight. A consultant can help your firm build on its strengths and fix its weaknesses. Your firm may also consider hiring a permanent diversity coordinator to ensure that the firm always treats diversity as a priority.

When Black women leave Big Law, firms lose a valuable resource. Clients want law firms with diversity; firms that let Black women leave or languish will lose out on clients and revenue. If you are a leader at a firm that wants to increase its diversity, contact The African American Attorney Network.  The Network can you’re your firm find quality African American candidates.