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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Picture a partner at a law firm. Chances are, the image in your mind is not a woman of color. Nationally, only four percent of law firm partners are minorities, and it follows that minority women are an even smaller slice of that pie.

As NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, the American Bar Association released a study today that looks at why so few women of color stay at law firms.

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

Cynthia Goodwork(ph) spent five years at law firms in the Washington D.C. area. She says for her, the final straw was when she was asked to sit in on a meeting with a company that was ending its relationship with the firm because the firm didn't employ enough minorities.

Ms. CYNTHIA GOODWORK (Lawyer): I was being asked to sit in on this meeting to show the client that, yes, we do have someone black in the firm. And I remember calling an African American woman who I respected who was a partner at a firm in town and saying, well, this is what I'm being asked to do. What do you think about it? And she said, Well, pretty much, you're going to have to get used to that.

SHAPIRO: Women of color say exclusion, neglect and overt harassment are not uncommon at large law firms. As one of the few black female partners at a U.S. law firm, Barbara Johnson has become a mentor to many young minority women.

Ms. BARBARA JOHNSON (Lawyer): It can be exhausting just to have to deal with underlying biases on a day to day basis. That, candidly, is why a lot of women of color leave large law firms.

SHAPIRO: Do you have friends and colleagues who have left the law firm life for that reason?

Ms. JOHNSON: I do.

SHAPIRO: What do they tell you?

Ms. JOHNSON: They tell me that it's not worth it. The billable hour requirements in combination with all of the underlying stereotypes and biases is exhausting and it's not worth it.

SHAPIRO: Johnson says she has the good fortune to work at a firm that values diversity, but at many other law firms, she says, a good old boy network still persists.

Ms. JOHNSON: For example, someone coming up to a Jamaican associate in New York and asking the question, Do you know where I can find a nanny?

SHAPIRO: Or assuming that an African American attorney is a secretary. And it's not just colleagues.

Ms. JOHNSON: Perhaps, as much as anything, it is the look on the faces of, let's say, Wall Street bankers or people in positions of power in corporations when a woman of color walks in and it's clear that she's in charge. There is very often a double take.

SHAPIRO: The American Bar Association says for all these reasons, women of color leave law firms in droves. They experience more discrimination than white women or minority men. Erin Reeves oversaw the study.

Ms. ERIN REEVES (American Bar Association): Most of the women of color in our study were just as qualified, if not more qualified, than everybody else in the study, so we did control for, were they having different experiences because perhaps they had gone to different kinds of law schools or had different grade point averages.

SHAPIRO: Even controlling for that, the study's authors found that minority women exist on the fringes of law firms, without the same social and professional support that other attorneys receive.

Ms. REEVES: So within in a few years, they either see the writing on the wall and say, You clearly don't know how to work with me and I'm not going to be successful here, so let me leave. Or these things culminate and the firm think women of color, you know, this really isn't working out.

SHAPIRO: There are steps that law firms can take to fix these problems. Barbara Johnson says at her firm, the top leaders are committed, not just to recruiting a diverse work force, but retaining it as well.

Ms. JOHNSON: And I can't overemphasize how important the culture of a firm is. Because if it's a culture that truly respects people and is sensitive, then you're not going to have those kinds of issues.

SHAPIRO: Ari Shapiro, NPR News. Washington.

BLOCK: Minority women lawyers share more stories of life at private law firms at our website, NPR.org.

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