Law Firms Fail Minority Women
September 22, 2009 Media Source:
Long Island Business News Written By:
When Melanie Hendry decided to become an attorney, she had role models in her family. Hendry met a male relative who practiced medical malpractice law in California. And her grandmother and great aunt had been secretaries for Thurgood Marshall.
“There was excitement in the family,” Hendry, an associate at Meyer Suozzi English and Klein in Garden City, said of her great aunt and grandmother’s brush with celebrity. “There had been an article in Ebony magazine or something with their picture with him.”
Hendry said her firm’s attitude toward women and race reassured her from the start. Meyer Suozzi is led by Lois Carter Schlissel and has a number of minority attorneys including Basil Paterson.
“It wasn’t a big issue for me,” Hendry said of being the only African American female attorney when she joined. “The bigger issue for me was about women in the firm. Not only the fact that there were women. We had the only female managing attorney of a large Long Island law firm. That said, not only can women come to this firm and be partner, they can be the managing attorney.”
Where are the women?
Hendry may not work with a historic figure like Thurgood Marshall, but she is a trailblazer in her own right, one of relatively few minority women attorneys on Long Island and nationwide and the only African American woman attorney at Meyer Suozzi English and Klein’s Garden City office when she was hired.
Her advice to others: “You may apply for a job at law firm where you may be the first female associate or first black female associate. So what?” Hendry said. “There’s got to be a first. Why shouldn’t that first be you?”
Like Henry, many minority women are racking up firsts when they arrive at law firms.
“When I joined the firm, there were no Chinese,” said Xiaochun Zhu, who became the first Asian American attorney at Scully Scott Murphy & Presser. “It’s a little bit adventurous. If there had been someone here Chinese before, it could have been easier.
More than a century since Charlotte E. Ray in 1872 became the first African-American woman admitted to the bar in the United States (she stopped practicing after she failed to round up enough clients), Hendry and Xiachun Zhu are signs of diversity’s progress in the legal field.
But although minorities can be found at Long Island law firms, both see relatively few minority women there. And studies show minority women often have a tougher time than others in the profession due to lack of access to networking, role models and other obstacles.
“I can’t say that I’ve noticed a change in the number of female minority attorneys in the past few years,” Hendry said. “There are more in New York City than on Long Island.”
Minority women comprise nearly 13 percent of law students nationwide, so they are going into the profession. But studies find they often run into resistance at law firms from both attorneys and clients.
“It is clear that the overlap of race and gender is significant, and presents unique hurdles for minority women in the industry,” said National Association for Law Placement Executive Director James Leipold.
Eunhee Park, an Asian American partner who joined Scully Scott after Zhu, said the profession remains far less diverse than many others.
“There are more women doing programming,” Park said of her previous field. “Certainly more women in the departments I worked at than in law firms.”
The first part of the problem is a lack of minority attorneys in general at law firms on Long Island and nationwide.
“Minority representation among U.S. attorneys lags well behind that of most other professionals,” according to a 2007 report by the New York state Bar Association, titled “Miles to Go.”
According to the 2000 census, minorities comprised 9.7 percent of lawyers nationwide compared to 20.9 percent of accountants, 23.1 percent of computer scientists and 24.6 percent of physicians. Minority representation in the work force was 25.5 percent. Minority representation among attorneys in 2000 was 11 percent in New York state, only a little better than the national average.
But studies also find minority women often advance more slowly than others, rarely holding posts as partner.
Minority women comprise only 1.84 percent of partners nationwide, making them what NALP called “particularly underrepresented in the partnership ranks,” even compared to minority men, who comprise only 4.08 percent of partners. Minority women partners at firms with more than 700 lawyers fare slightly higher, at 2.27 percent.
“Despite three decades of progress in entry-level positions, the pace of integration in upper-level jobs remains frustratingly, glacially slow,” according to Miles to Go. “Progress is especially slow for minority women in the profession.”
Although minority women such as Hendry enter the profession, many leave. Minority women comprise 11 percent to 13 percent of associates and only 1.4 percent of equity partners. Even more troubling, almost 85 percent of minority women exit law firms by the fifth year.
“You have a real pipeline issue,” said Bobbi Liebenberg, chair of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women. “A lot of times they go into corporations, government or their own solo law firms. I think they don’t see role models at law firms. They’re not making partner.”
Catalyst chief executive Ilene H. Lang said her group’s study of minority women attorneys showed “retention and advancement of women-of-color attorneys is still a challenge.”
Hendry said some women take time off to raise children, potentially slowing their rise. “The effect may be it takes them a little longer to be partner,” she said. “Or their goals may change.”
Giscombe said minority women need to work hard to make connections in and outside the office.
“One piece of advice we’ve given to women of color is you need a network,” she said. “Find mentors and sponsor to move ahead.”
Few people cite open discrimination, but many believe unconscious prejudices are at work.
“I think there are issues of implicit bias,” Liebenberg said. “That can effect evaluations, the type of work you get or promotion or advancement. It doesn’t mean people are trying to do it.”
She believes firms are working harder to implement diversity programs, often for the first time looking at minority women rather than simply minorities. But she believes clients also can foster change.
“You are seeing corporations making law firms accountable for the composition,” Liebenberg said. “Wal-Mart and Microsoft got rid of law firms that didn’t meet diversity goals. There’s nothing like hitting people in the wallet to incentivize them.”