Why So Few Minority Women Stay at Law Firms

stock photo of woman lawyer

Nationally, only 4 percent of law firm partners are minorities; even fewer are minority women. A new study from the American Bar Association explores why so few women of color reach the highest ranks of law firms. Many of the women shared tales of discrimination that led them to leave their firms, where they said exclusion, neglect and overt harassment are not uncommon.

Minority Attorneys Reveal Worst of the Workplace

Survey Results

Nine hundred and twenty attorneys returned a completed questionnaire for the American Bar Association. Of these, 632 were minority women; 132 were minority men; 194 were white women; and 157 were white men. A look at some of the experiences that participants reported:

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The ABA's report shared stories from minority women about some of the challenges they've faced at private law firms because of their race or gender. Nearly half (49 percent) said they'd been subjected to demeaning comments or other types of harassment. Some of their tales from the legal workplace are included below.

Racist Stereotypes

An Asian attorney recalled:

"I had a managing partner call me into his office when I was a fourth-year [associate]. He introduced me to the client who was Korean and he tells him that I'm Korean, too. He says, 'She eats kim chee, just like you.' He said to me, 'Talk to him.' I looked at the client and said, 'It's a pleasure to meet you. I'm sure you speak English better than I speak Korean.' The client's face was so red. Then the partner left a message on my internal message system, and he was speaking gibberish, trying to sound like an Asian speaker. I called every partner on my floor and said, "You need to come and listen to this.' I played that message 10 times. Ten times."

A Native-American attorney shared this tale:

"You have to have an incredibly tough skin... I had people make comments like, 'Oh, you're Indian. Where's your tomahawk? Are you going to scalp me?' Or, 'Can I call you Pocahontas?'… When I was called 'chief' and brought it to people's attention, I was told, 'Oh, you're spoiling [our work] environment here.' So I had to leave."

Pigeonholed by Race or Ethnicity

An Asian woman lawyer reported:

"They gave me a document in Korean and said, 'Can you read this?' And I said, 'This is Korean. I'm Chinese.' And they couldn't understand why I couldn't read it."

Different Standards

Some women attorneys of color said they suspected that law firms held lawyers of color to a different, higher standard than white lawyers. One woman of color stated:

"Most of the white associates [at my firm] went to state schools, but all the minority associates were from the top ten law schools. If you’re not from a top ten law school and you’re a minority candidate, you’re not on the same playing field as a white applicant from any law school."

'Token' Stature at a Firm

A woman lawyer of color said:

"I felt like an exotic animal. I was always asked to attend functions and award ceremonies, speak to law students of color and pose for advertising publications. However, I never had contact with partners in power other than at these events. Law firms would do well to examine whether their associates of color are given real opportunities to interact with the power structure of the firm."

Note: The ABA report uses the phrase "of color" as an umbrella term for persons who are Hispanic/Latina, African-American, Native American, Asian-American and those from multiracial backgrounds.

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