Angela F. Williams

(WOMENSENEWS)–The American Bar Association is researching why almost all of attorneys who are women of color leave private law firms before ever making partner.

The association’s Commission on Women in the Profession launched the study last year on the heels of other research showing that women of color didn’t last long enough in their first law firms to earn the seniority expected of partners. According to the previous studyconducted in the late 1990s by the NationalAssociation for Law Placement foundation, the research arm of a Washington, D.C., organization of legal recruiters–almost all women of color leave their first law firms within eight years, the usual time required to make partner.

Few associates stay at the first firm they join. The overall attrition rate among associates during their first eight years at their first law firm is nearly 75 percent, with nearly 73 percent of white women and 82 percent of black men leaving their first law firm. But an attrition rate of nearly 100 percent among female associates of color was eye catching to staffers at the women’s commission, born in 1987 to help advance women in the field.

“That was such a striking statistic that our members were pretty shocked,” says Kim Youngblood, director for the commission, which, along with the bar association, is based in Chicago. “They decided there needed to be some additional research.”

Assessing Experience, Personnel Practices

Youngblood is unaware of any other research study that has focused solely on women of color in the legal profession. Besides asking women of color why they are leaving law firms, researchers will assess how their experiences compare with those of men and white women. They will also examine which personnel practices help women of color to succeed and which ones hinder them.

The commission’s goal is to quantify the factors–until now only collected in the form of anecdotal evidence–about what drives women of color from law firms. “We suspect there might be some things within the culture of a law firm which has a different impact on women of color,” says Sheila Thomas, a commissioner and the co-chair of the study.

Researchers will survey Asian, African American, Native American and Latin women who work for, or have worked for, law firms with 10 or more attorneys. They will also include U.S. attorneys working for the Department of Justice. The commission has so far collected about 2,000 names with a goal of reaching 7,000 willing respondents before sending out surveys by the end of this year. Within the next five months, researchers will begin conducting a series of focus groups to gather qualitative data–anecdotes and stories–as well as quantitative data in several major cities including Los Angeles, New York, Houston and Washington, D.C. The commission anticipates releasing results by next August.

“This needs to be addressed so people don’t act on speculation or perception,” says Dennis Archer, referring to the need for findings that go beyond anecdotes. Archer, the first African American elected as president of the bar association, is chair of his law firm, Dickinson Wright, in Detroit. “Let’s deal with reality and the facts. That’s how we deal with things as a profession.”

Issue First Examined in 1980s

The first time the bar association examined issues concerning women of color was in the late 1980s. At the time, Archer was heading a bar commission on minorities and the-then first lady of Arkansas Hillary Rodham Clinton was heading the bar association’s commission on women. They both concluded that women of color were “falling through the cracks,” Archer says. They formed a committee that held two meetings to hear what the issues were for women of color.

The situation of female lawyers, as a whole, has changed substantially since that era. Yet, despite the fact that women have entered the profession in droves since the 1970s and are usually welcomed as associates in the lucrative large law firms, they are still underrepresented in the ranks of law firm partners, that is those with ownership interests in the firms.

Women of color, however, are still vastly underrepresented in law firms–from entering young lawyers to partners– according to the women’s commission. Instead, women of color attorneys tend to cluster in the public sector, as state prosecutors, public defenders and U.S. attorneys.

Sheila Thomas, one of the commissioners and the study’s co-chair, says women of color find work in the public sector more in line with their interests and their community. They also find the environment more hospitable because of the presence of more women of color.

“It’s seen as a place where you may have a greater opportunity to flourish as an attorney,” says Thomas, who left a small firm to work for herself in Oakland.

Sharon Brown, the president elect of the Black Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles, Inc., a membership organization of black female attorneys, says one reason many leave their firms is because they often feel shut out of top jobs. “Very often people feel the culture is not a good mix,” Brown says. “They feel isolated. They are not getting the good assignments.”

Problem of Culture Shock

One black female first-year associate who asked that her name not be given says she is one of two black women out of 200 attorneys in her large law firm in Florida. After graduating in the top 10 of her law school class, she says that doing the work is less difficult than adjusting to the “culture shock.” She says gets a lot of questions about “black people” that have nothing to do with law, such as, “Why do black people stay in church so long?”

“If I spend 60 hours a week there, I don’t want to feel like an outsider,” she says.

Angela F. Williams, the study’s other co-chair and counsel at Bryan Cave LLP, one of the top firms in Washington, says it is crucial for women of color to find mentors both inside and outside their firms. However it is rare for them to find another women of color to fill the role.

When the first-year associate in Florida tried to reach out to the white women in her firm, for instance, she says she found them unresponsive. The mentor she was assigned to was a 57-year-old white man. When she asked to go to lunch with him, he joked that they could as long as she did not tell his wife.

Williams says a lot of what female attorneys of color deal with is not overt discrimination but subtle misperceptions. “A white male who has limited experience with a young black female looks at her and doesn’t know how to relate to her,” she says.

Williams, an ordained minister, has spoken to several groups of female attorneys of color. Recently, she asked a group of black female attorneys in Washington why so few women of color work in law firms. To her surprise, many said that tying to “make” partner did not seem like a valuable pursuit compared to other interests, such as raising a family. And since the only reason to stay at a firm was to attain partnership, many were choosing to leave instead.

The commission would like to follow up on female attorneys of color who leave their firms. Thomas believes that some are leaving the profession altogether.

As for those who have remained at their firms and done well, the commission would like to learn what allowed them to succeed. Researchers plan to interview employers as well. The bar association plans to share results with employers.

“We want to provide a blueprint for law firms interested in increasing their numbers of women of color,” says Thomas.

Luchina Fisher is a writer and producer in New York.

For more information:

American Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession:

Black Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles, Inc.: