A Minority within a Minority

Law is the least diverse profession in the nation. There is a diversity problem, especially with respect to black women lawyers, which seems to be a pipeline issue, ranging from law schools to law firm leaders. As tough as it is for female lawyers to rise to the top in legal arenas, it’s even tougher for black women lawyers.

What I have learned while practicing law is that when women lawyers are disaggregated into distinct racial groups, the challenges confronting them are not always the same in nature or degree. There are common patterns of gender that unify women lawyers in their struggle for professional advancement, but not all women experience the struggle in the same way. For women of color, race is not merely an added layer that subjects them to additional obstacles, but rather a component of their identity that intersects with gender to expose them to unique challenges.

This has been revealed in numerous studies of women of color in law firms. The studies find that women of color in the legal profession fare worse than white women and men of color. Black women are a minority within a minority. For example, while 21 percent of law firm partners were women in 2018, only 2 percent of partners were women of color. Moreover, just less than one percent of partners at major law firms are black women.

Being black and a woman in my profession has been both a challenge and a benefit for me. The number of black women partners at Am Law 100 law firms remains minuscule, and unconscious bias impacts adversely the advancement of women of color in the legal profession. But I strongly believe that many attributes I have, often characterized as black female attributes, make me a more effective attorney.

All lawyers need to assume personal responsibility for professional changes in diversity in the legal profession. To reform the legal profession, diversity issues must not be seen as “women” or “minority” issues, but as organizational priorities in which everyone has a stake. Diversity is a challenge for the legal profession, and it is going to take everyone’s efforts to improve it.