by Catalyst

The retention, development, and advancement of women and minorities is a pressing issue for law firms today as the talent pool increasingly comprises women and people of color. In the past 20 years, the percentage of women entering U.S. law schools has never been lower than 40 percent.

While women of color represented nearly one-quarter of all women associates in 2008, only 1.84 percent were partners. In the final installment of a four-part research series investigating the experiences of women of color in professional services firms, Catalyst benchmarked the experiences of women of color at law firms against those of their colleagues. The study was conducted through interviews with senior partners, as well as focus groups with Asian women, black women, and Latinas in a sub-sample of participating firms. To collect quantitative data, a web survey was distributed to lawyers working at the top 25 (by revenue) law firms in the United States. The survey was sent to 2,939 individuals, of which 1,242, or 42.3 percent, responded.

Women of Color Face Unique Disadvantages

Findings showed that women of color shared certain gender-based disadvantages with white women. These included perceived sexist comments, dissatisfaction with access to training opportunities for business development, and lack of support for balancing work and personal responsibilities. Findings also suggested that lawyers of color—both women and men—experienced racial/ethnic stereotyping, overall exclusion from the workplace, dissatisfaction with equity and opportunity, dissatisfaction with supervising attorney support, and a lack of influential mentors.

In general, women of color said they were affected to a greater degree by barriers commonly encountered by other women, and that they experienced additional barriers unique to their own group. Such barriers pose severe challenges to women of color trying to fit into their organizations and forge positive relationships with influential others. As a result, their development and advancement in the relationship-based, client-service environment of law firms is often compromised.

Of all groups surveyed, women of color were most likely to perceive negative stereotyping; they were also most likely to say they found it challenging to fit into their firm’s environment. They felt stymied by lack of access to business development opportunities and important client engagements. Women of color also felt that their supervising attorneys had low expectations of their performance. What emerged is a picture of women-of-color lawyers who feel disadvantaged in the workplace compared to white women (with whom they share gender), to men of color (with whom they share race/ethnicity), and to white men (from whom they are twice removed). However, women of color are by no means a monolithic group: for example, black women lawyers reported feeling a greater degree of exclusion than Asian women and Latinas.

Best Practices

Almost all first- and second-tier law firms in the United States have diversity and inclusion (D&I) programs that target women lawyers. Law firms have made some progress in addressing gender-based disadvantages in the workplace. However, managing partners and practice group leaders must realize that programs that help retain and develop white women lawyers may not be as effective for women of color.

To reduce the disadvantages faced by women of color, firms should take the following steps:

Develop authentic relationships—For women of color to feel more connected within the workplace, they need to feel more comfortable interacting with managers (e.g., with their supervising attorneys).

Create a mentoring culture—While law firms may offer junior lawyers the chance to connect with formal mentors, many firms have not yet successfully achieved a culture of mentoring. To accelerate the careers of those from traditionally marginalized groups, law firms need to work aggressively on instilling mentoring as a core value.

Monitor career development and advancement—Many women of color reported missing out on important assignments and developmental opportunities that could advance their careers. Firms need to be systematic in ensuring that women of color receive the opportunities necessary for advancement, including those that come about through networking with others at the firm.

Increase work-life effectiveness—To avoid imperfect execution of diversity programs and practices, law firms must raise awareness about the unique work-life challenges faced by women of color and develop programs that meet their needs. Firms also need to redefine how work gets done and institute programs that emphasize flexibility as a business imperative. This will help create a culture where all lawyers feel more comfortable using firm resources intended to support work-life effectiveness.


This Catalyst article was featured on page 22 in the Sept/Oct 2009 issue of Profiles in Diversity Journal