Where Do Black Women Stand in the Legal Profession?

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Black women lawyers are not advancing in the United States legal profession. The National Association for Law Placement published its 2018 Report on Diversity in U.S. law firms (2019). Based on the law firms that reported their numbers, Black/African American women lawyers made up less than one percent of the partners in the U.S. In 2009, 0.57% of partners were Black women. Nine years later, that number increased to only 0.67%. Even more discouraging, only 2.55% of associates were Black women lawyers, down from 2.93% in 2009. In 2016, Black women lawyers were found to be the most likely to leave the legal profession (Catalyst 2018). 

While social sciences and law scholarship have a provided some insights into why this is happening, there is not nearly enough research on the topic. Even more scarce are studies illustrating and analyzing how Black women lawyers respond to the circumstances that stifle their advancement.  For example, in research on the legal academy, the focus is to identify and explain the dearth of Black women as tenured law professors and law school deans. In legal practice, the focus is on explaining the alarming number of Black women lawyers being lost in the pipeline from law student to law partner. 

There are a few studies that explore the experiences of women of color lawyers in United States law firms. A book by Tsedale Melaku is the only monograph dedicated solely to the experiences of Black women lawyers. (I will discuss this book in a separate post.) The American Bar Association (ABA) Commission on Women in the Profession published a report, Visible Invisibility: Women of Color in Law Firms (Chicago: American Bar Association, 2006), that analyzed the retention and advancement of women of color lawyers. The study found that women of color leave the profession for a number of reasons but that those reasons were directly linked to their intersectional experiences as women of color. They left the profession because they felt isolated and excluded, lacked mentorship, sought but did not receive challenging work, reported low billable hours, and had few opportunities for growth. 

Catalyst’s study by Deepali Bugati, Women of Color in U.S. Law Firms: Women of Color in Professional Services Series (New York: Catalyst, 2009) similarly reported on the retention, development, and advancement of women of color lawyers. The study found that many firms failed to “concentrate on the “intersectionality’ experienced by women of color in the workplace.” Bugati defined intersectionality as “how different identities, such as gender, race, ethnicity, immigration status, and class, overlap and combine, creating unique experiences of disadvantage and privilege in the workplace” (2).

Women of color often sought in-house counsel positions when they left law firms. In 2011, Corporate Counsel of Women of Color (CCWC) commissioned the study, The Perspectives of Women of Color Attorneys in Corporate Legal Departments (New York: Corporate Counsel of Women of Color, 2011). The study found that women of color leave law firms for corporations because corporations employ more “racially subordinated” people (minorities), including women of color. Around the 1980s, corporations became more publicly concerned with diversity and this concern remains as corporations make the “business case” for diversity. The business case argues that it simply makes fiscal sense to diversity workforces because the clients that corporations serve are diverse. The Perspectives study found that women of color lawyers left law firms for reasons similar to those found in previous studies. Those reasons include the lack of racially subordinated lawyers in visible positions of power, challenging work, and advancement opportunities.

It is undeniable that progress with diversity and inclusion for Black women lawyers has been slow and inconsistent. This is unacceptable, especially considering how the law is one of the largest and perhaps most influential systems in American society. As such, it is imperative that those individuals who comprise this system represent the identities, interests, and experiences of every person in the country. Representation matters. 

By: Takeia R. Johnson