As we celebrate the life of Dr. King today, it’s disappointing to realize that diversity in the law has not progressed much since the iconic “I Have A Dream” speech in 1963.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, eighty-eight percent of lawyers are white. And The Washington Post reported that “Although blacks, Latinos, Asian Americans and Native Americans now constitute about a third of the population and a fifth of law school graduates, they make up fewer than 7 percent of law firm partners and 9 percent of general counsels of large corporations. In major law firms, only 3 percent of associates and less than 2 percent of partners are African-Americans.”
These are very disappointing statistics given that lawyers become the judges and lawmakers who have a major impact on the way this country is run. If there was ever a profession that needed to be inclusive it is the law.
The primary solution to the diversity problem in the legal profession is for legal organizations to take the initiative to actively encourage diversity in the workplace. That means recognizing unconscious and intentional bias and having systems in place to address these issues and holding all individuals involved accountable for the results.
In the meantime, there are certain things that minorities can do to attempt to overcome some of the challenges of being a minority in the the legal profession.
Raise Your Visibility
Many minorities, especially women, feel invisible in the workplace. Although they may do their jobs well, they don’t get the same recognition and attention as their white male peers.
It has been well documented that women are less likely to promote their skills and achievements than men. This can be even more difficult for women of color since they generally feel their contributions are not recognized. Fortune reported a study that concluded 26% of black women feel their talents aren’t recognized by their superiors, compared to 17% of white women.
This also applies to solo’s since our “superiors” are our clients and potential clients. The more we are recognized the more our practices will grow.
The best way to overcome this is to develop the ability to promote your skills and accomplishments. Showcase your knowledge by writing , serving on boards and committees, being an active participant in legal organizations and taking part in speaking engagements. Don’t be afraid to tell people who you are and what you can do. Don’t allow yourself to be invisible.
Know How You Will Deal with Discrimination When It Happens
You WILL face discrimination or a racist comment at point in your legal career.
While every battle may not be worth fighting, don’t stand by and allow bias to go unchecked.
If the bias is coming from someone you have to work with regularly, address the person directly. Pull them aside and let them know that what said or did was offensive to you. In many instances the bias is unconscious or unintentional and if you bring it to their attention they won’t do it again. Or if they are being intentional, they are most likely a coward and will retreat when you call them out on it.
If the situation persists talk to HR. Make sure you keep impeccable records on the situation (copying emails or ensuring your conversations are in front of others), and make sure you have facts to back up all of your claims.
Document Your Success
This is a tip that I learned from my mother. My sister was excelling at a job she had and getting excellent feedback from her superior. But when it came time for performance reviews and raises, it was like he forgot about all the hard work she put in. But once she started keeping copies of the emails he sent giving her positive feedback and documenting all other successes, she was able to provide indisputable proof of her value.
Have a Diverse Network Group of Mentors
Just like you learn better in school with diverse classmates, you can learn more from a diverse group of mentors. While it is important to have a mentor of your own race and gender that can identify better with you on certain issues, don’t limit yourself to that group.
A great place to start looking for mentors is your local bar association or even your law schools Alumni Association as they often have formal mentoring programs. You can also reach out to other lawyers you meet who are where you want to be and try to develop an informal mentor relationship.
The same argument can be made for your network. Success is partly determined by who you know, so make an effort to connect with lawyers in various positions with diverse backgrounds for optimum opportunities.
Investigate Potential Employers When Job Searching
The fastest way to success is to work for a firm that will encourage and foster your success. When interviewing with firms, not only should you be a good fit for them, they should be one for you as well. That means providing an environment where you can thrive.
Pay attention to their culture. Do they have women and minority partners? Do they promote minorities from within? If you have the opportunity reach out to minority employees.
The job market is tough and you may want to accept any position you can get. But consider the long-term effects the decision will have on your career.
Ultimately, change must come from the top and that change is never going to happen unless we get more minorities in positions of power in the law. Do you have any tips on overcoming diversity? Comment below.
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