An American Indian attorney is asked where she keeps her tomahawk. White male partners look past a Black lawyer, assuming she is clerical staff. An Asian attorney is called a “dragon lady” when she asserts herself.
A study by the American Bar Association says those real-life experiences, along with more subtle forms of discrimination, are prompting growing numbers of minority women to abandon the nation’s biggest law firms.
“We’re not even talking about trying to get up through a glass ceiling; we’re trying to stay above ground,” says Paulette Brown, co-chairwoman of the group that produced the study, released Friday during the bar association’s annual convention.
The report, “Visible Invisibility: Women of Color in Law Firms,” was conducted by the bar association with the help of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. Questionnaires were sent to about 1,300 attorneys, both men and women. About 920 of them, or 72 percent, returned responses.
Law firms exclude minority women from golf outings, after-hours drinks and other networking events, the study says. Partners neglect the women of color they are supposed to help mentor.
In some cases, partners and senior lawyers disregard minority women less because of outright bigotry than because they have little in common with them and thus don’t interact well, the study found.
Firms routinely hand minority women inferior assignments such as reviewing documents or writing briefs that provide little opportunity to meet clients, the study says. That means women of color aren’t able to cultivate business relationships and develop the “billable hours” that are the basis of career advancement within a firm.
Among the statistics in the study:
· Forty-four percent of minority women said they were denied desirable assignments, versus 2 percent of White men.
· Forty-three percent of minority women said they had limited access to client development opportunities, compared with 3 percent of White men.
· Nearly two-thirds of minority women said they were excluded from informal and formal networking opportunities, compared with 4 percent of White men.
Such discrimination largely goes unchecked at law firms, forcing women to accept the discrimination or quit, Brown says.
The study cited 2005 data from the National Association of Law Placement, showing 81 percent of minority female associates left their jobs within five years. That figure was up from the late 1990s, when it stood at 75 percent.
Elaine Johnson James, who is Black and a partner at the firm Edwards, Angell, Palmer and Dodge, says she has seen such defections.
She recently called classmates from her Harvard University law class in an effort to find Black law partners to speak at an alumni panel. Of the 50 or so Black women in her class and in the classes above and below hers, James says she found only one working at a firm.
“Harvard, now; you’ve got to figure if anybody’s going to stick, it would be us,” she says. “It’s amazing that we have left the private practice of law in droves.”
Michael Greco, the bar association president, says managing partners at law firms — mostly White men — need to dedicate themselves to reform.
“This is intolerable,” Greco said at a news conference. “It stings the conscience of our profession.”
— Associated Press
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