Although the numbers still fall short, Black women are making strides in the legal world. According to recent data, Black women will be leading 14% of U.S. law schools by the fall. This is a broader reflection of the progress Black women have made in the legal profession. The number of leadership roles is rising at large law firms, in-house legal departments, and more.
“I hope we are at a pivotal point for the legal academy, in terms of recognizing that talent is equally disbursed and that we have to make sure we’re building opportunities to allow for that talent to be empowered. I think the number of people of color deans—and Black women in particular—speaks to that,” stated Camille Nelson, the dean of the University of Hawaii’s law school.
The national dialogue around diversity and racial justice is spurring some of the changes. Hiring search committees are focusing more on diversity and inclusion and student support. Many observers hope that having more Black women at the helm of leadership will open the door for others.
The 14% milestone is a breakthrough. But the data show that Black women and minorities generally lag behind in tenured faculty positions. According to 2020 figures released by the American Bar Association, only 21% of full-time law faculty identified as minorities. Thus, the representation of Black women among that total must be much lower.
In-House Counsel Leadership Roles
More Black women than ever are also general counsels at top U.S. companies. The Minority Corporate Counsel Association examined 2019 data. The data showed that the number of minority and women general counsel at top U.S. companies is at the highest level it has been in 15 years.
Although there is progress, it is slow. The statistics show that Fortune 1000 companies are still continuing to hire white male lawyers at significantly higher rates than women and minority candidates. As of 2017, African Americans represented just 4% of the general counsel of Fortune 1000 companies.
Law Firm Partnership
The representation of Black women at law firms has remained more stagnant. The results of a 2018 survey conducted by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association reveal that women of color make up 14% of lawyers at the associate level at law firms. Even more starkly, they only account for 5% of non-equity partners and 3% of equity partners.
While white women suffer underrepresentation in law firms, the statistics are not as dramatic. The same 2018 survey showed that white women account for 32% of lawyers at the associate level, 25% of non-equity partners, and 17% of equity partners. The same trend exists of dwindling numbers of women progressing up the law firm ladder. However, the loss of talent is more dramatic when it comes to Black women.
Hidden and Structural Barriers for Black Women
Kim Rivera, president of strategy and business management and chief legal officer for HP Inc. and chair-elect of the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity, has observed and directly experienced many of the subtle barriers that impact the advancement of Black women.
“You start with the proposition that these are very hard jobs to do. On top of that, you are required to put in an extra degree of effort, energy, and intellectual capital to achieve the same level of opportunity. And it shows up across assignments, client relationships, and compensation, and there is the additional degree of difficulty in trying to execute well and prove yourself across all of those domains,” states Rivera.
Many women in the law firm environment report feeling a similar sentiment that they can’t win. They are either perceived as weak if they are less vocal or overly aggressive if they speak up. It is often the build-up of these micro-aggressions that cause many women to ultimately leave their law firms.
Law firms need to make changes to their behavior in order to address some of these subtle barriers. In addition to investing in more mentorship and training programs, law firms also need to make sure women and minorities do not feel undervalued on the projects they are staffed on.
One of the Black women interviewed as a participant in a focus group, expressed frustration with the lack of opportunities for complex assignments and visibility to clients and colleagues. She stated, “I have to keep proving myself to clients, peers, superiors, subordinates, even after each success…I feel like I have to try harder than white men. I feel like people don’t give me the same tools to succeed or excel. I have to make my own way without these tools for success.”