Posted on: 10/16/2012
Stacy Douglas, Rosary Hernandez
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Law firms are losing incredible talent due to the failure to value and integrate women of color. Paulette Brown, co-chair of the ABA's Commission on Women in the Profession, believes this is unintentional. "My guess is that most [firms] have not taken a serious inward look. I think that they think about how many women they have, and about how many people of color they have. But they have not given any particular thought to women of color."
The absence of consideration renders firms unable to retain these attorneys. This oversight is so prevalent that minority women choose to leave rather than stay and fight for equality, resulting in 86% leaving before their seventh year. This article will consider the main factors that drive these valuable attorneys away, and how firms can commit to retaining these women.
Causes of Attrition
It is a misconception that women of color leave law firms because they are unable to handle the work. There are six primary reasons women of color leave firms: 1) the quality of work; 2) lack of recognition; 3) lack of exposure to senior management and prime clients; 4) lack of appropriate mentors; 5) failure of firms to make a sincere commitment to diversity; and 6) work life balance issues.
In addition, women of color lack the motivation to power through the challenges that would be gained by seeing women of any background at the top who have stayed, fought hard, and prevailed. "It's harder to believe it's attainable if you don't see it," said Dionne Greene-Punnette, U.S. markets counsel for MasterCard Worldwide, who worked for law firms from seven years before going in-house. Women in general remain grossly under-represented in the top management of their law firms, with even less promising statistics for women attorneys of color, who comprise just 3% of non-equity partners and only 1.4% of equity partners. Studies by the NALP Foundation show nearly 100% of minority women leave law firms within eight years.
The good old boy network that still dominates the practice of law only accentuates these issues. According to NALP, 94% of law firm partners are white, and 81% are men. Minority women are often inadvertently overlooked when work assignments are made, simply due to an individual's unconscious bias favoring people like themselves. As the majority of the people handing out the work are white men, the cycle perpetuates itself.
When women of color do get work, it is often not challenging enough, and the division of work remains unequal, so they struggle to get the requisite billables. In the ABA's Visible Invisibility: Women of Color in Law Firms study, 44% of women of color reported being passed over for desirable work assignments, compared with 39% of white women, 25% of men of color and only 2% of white men reporting the same experiences.
Recognition and exposure is another area where firms fail to invest time and energy. Women minorities feel their work is undervalued, and do not feel like they are an essential part of the firm's business. In turn, they do not get adequate exposure to senior management, and firms rarely focus on opportunities for them to be in leadership positions.
The single biggest cause of attrition is lack of proper mentorship. Even though women have been entering the profession at roughly the same rate as men, by the time partnership decisions are made, the number of women available to be considered has decreased substantially. Consequently, there are very few women moving into positions of real power and influence in law firms, and certainly less women minorities, which means there are almost no women minorities to serve as mentors.
The last major cause of attrition is the treatment of mothers. While women continue to be responsible for family work, the gap between the wages of mothers is increasing. Women without children now earn 90% of men's salaries, whereas mothers earn a mere 60%. Worse yet, women in law who "want" to work "only" 40 hours per week are often left to decide between quitting or seeking part time employment, which results in removal from the partnership track, and inevitably means less desirable assignments. "Plugging the "Leaky Pipeline" of Women Attorney Attrition", Roberta D. Liebenberg, The Young Lawyer, Volume 15, No. 9, August 2011.
It is becoming more and more common for female attorneys to be the primary bread winners in their families. Firms who fail to recognize the importance of compensated maternity leave are falling behind the bar in retaining all women, not just women of color. The message must be sent to women professionals that they are valued and respected as the gender making parenthood a possibility for both men and women. A woman's gender places her at an unfair disadvantage by removing her from the workforce to bear and care for newborn children. From a business perspective, a firm that fails to provide its female attorneys with maternity leave will suffer from the inability to present a diverse group of lawyers to clients. Women planning to start families will undoubtedly leave a firm that fails to provide some sort of compensated maternity leave for a more supportive work environment. A failure to recognize the importance of maternity leave also sends the fatal message to clients that the firm is not committed to diversity.
A study by Corporate Counsel Women of Color that surveyed more than 1,300 minority female corporate attorneys discovered they left law firms to work as corporate counsel because corporations value diversity. Corporations started valuing diversity in the 1980s when they looked to expand into the global marketplace. By committing to attaining diverse members, corporations have since learned the skill of retaining diverse members. Law firms did not begin to acknowledge the value of diversity until almost a decade later, and most have yet to create a comfortable community that fosters the success of minorities. As a result, firms are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to retaining these women.
Firms can retain women of color attorneys by committing to advancing their professional development. The suggestions below offer ways to give these women the opportunity to interact with senior management and highly valued clients, encourage their involvement within the firm, advance their careers at the same rate as their male and non-minority colleagues, and help them feel a sense of community.
The single biggest difference a firm can make is proper mentorship. Women and minorities do better than others in terms of engagement, retention and promotions when they have proper mentors. Formal mentoring programs are critical in improving retention of women minorities. Firms should ensure these women have career support early on through cross-culture mentorship. While any mentorship is beneficial, another female minority can empathize, and will be perceived as really understanding what it takes to break the barriers that a woman of color is confronted with.
Mentoring should be a requirement, and part of associates' evaluations, with clear expectations outlined. The firm should also invest in training the associates in mentoring. An associate should meet with her mentor at least monthly. Female minority associates should also be given the opportunity to shadow senior associates on high profile casework, as part of the mentoring program. With a strong mentor, a new associate will be comfortable enough to express any concerns, and the mentor can spot a disgruntled associate and try to address any issue before it becomes a problem. A mentor can also give the firm feedback on what works, how it can improve, and issues that need to be addressed to create an environment that fosters the inclusion of women of color.
Accordingly, the firm must realize this mentoring is not an unproductive task. The law firm business model traditionally penalizes workers for intangible activities, which reduces the time and effort lawyers devote to mentoring. As one woman explained, "I spend all year on [mentoring and diversity], and they are touting our efforts to our clients, and at the end of the year, I hear that they are disappointed by my hours. I realized then that I couldn't do this at the expense of my career." Law firms can no longer "claim" a commitment to diversity and not value the time spent by its diverse attorneys towards the commitment they proclaim. Time spent mentoring or on diversity development must count towards requisite annual hours, or at a minimum be considered when evaluating compensation.
Mentoring should not stop with a formal assigned mentor. The firm should provide networking opportunities through lunches, happy hours, breakfast, or CLE where members can share client development skills, discuss their practice, and teach associates how to build a book of business. Mentors should encourage their mentees to show up and participate, as this exposure helps integrate these women into the firm and give them a much needed sense of community.
Women of color should also have external mentors supported by the firm, such as through the Women's Law Association Mentorship Program, or a minority bar association program. Not only can an external mentor help guide the associate through the challenges of being a double minority, it will expand the associate's network. By supporting minority organizations the law firm demonstrates it is not only playing lip service to the diversity trend, but is truly invested in the satisfaction of its minority attorneys.
Firm Wide Efforts
The message of the firm's commitment to retaining women of color must be carried from the top down, not simply by the recruitment committee or the marketing team. This firm-wide focus must include training and development, and managers should be held accountable for retention. Minority women need to know that their role in the firm is important to the success of the firm and this can only be expressed if the commitment to diversity exists at all levels.
A firm's diversity committee should oversee all aspects of attracting and retaining diverse associates. This includes measuring and analyzing the work flow to ensure there is no disparity in assignments among associates, paying special attention to any unintentional bias against women of color. These members should attend annual diversity conferences to gain new ideas for recruitment and retention from hearing others speak about what efforts worked, and why others failed. The information learned at theses conferences should then be shared by way of an in house seminar presented to all attorneys of the firm in an effort to share and expand on the firm's diversity commitment. This demonstrates to not only the women of color attorneys but all attorneys of varying backgrounds that the firm is sincere about its commitment.
Women are also frequently disadvantaged in the client succession process, as retiring male partners tend to transfer their clients to their male protégés rather than the female attorneys who have also worked successfully with the client. Firms should set up an objective set of criteria for purpose of handing over this business that prevents favoritism based on similar backgrounds.
Special attention should also be paid to the treatment of mothers. The firm should take care not to overlook these women, and should create avenues for these women so they can take care of their family without being undervalued or deemed unworthy of partnership. One female minority attorney stated, "The minute I became a mother, I noticed opportunities immediately stopped coming to me. I used to be involved in marketing and would travel for the firm. There was an assumption that I was no longer capable of these tasks once I had a child." Firms cannot tolerate this overt discrimination and disparate treatment of women who have children.
Last, the firm should also have an active presence in local organizations of color, including the minority bar associations, and work on outreach efforts. For example, interviewing at historically black colleges is an excellent mechanism to locate talent and demonstrate a firm's commitment to diversity. Reaching out to minority women early in their careers will help the legal industry reduce the alarming attrition rates of women of color. Interviewing at historically black colleges is something that not only young talent will appreciate, but client's committed to diversity will take notice of.
The reality is that firms must give thought to the unique situation of women minorities in law firms. A failure to do so will not only increase the attrition rate of women of color, it will lead to an industry where firms who failed to take notice are at a significant disadvantage, losing marketable talent to firms and businesses with a sincere diversity initiative.
Stacy Douglas, Esq.
Wood Smith Henning & Berman
Los Angeles, California
Rosary Hernandez, Esq.
Wood Smith Henning & Berman