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Racial preferences and U.S. law firms – my two cents

The New York Times recently featured an article that examined the high rate of attrition of black attorneys at major U.S. corporate law firms. The article referred to a study by Professor Sander, which attributed the phenomenon to the fact that many law firms lower their standards when hiring minority students. According to the study, black lawyers “are about one-fourth as likely to make partner as white lawyers from the same entering class of associates.” Critics of the study point to the fact that success at a law firm, particularly when considering who makes partner, has little to do with grades and more to do with “softer” intangibles like mentoring, assignments, networking abilities etc.

The debate around the study got me thinking about my experience interviewing and working with a big law firm. Though my stint at a firm was brief, by the time I was done it was very clear to me that while I could succeed and compete at that level, navigating that territory as a black female would require something “extra” beyond intellectual capability. I was quite particular about the kind of firm I wanted to work for during my summer as a 2L. I ended up at Covington for a number of reasons beyond the fact that it was a prestigious firm and was in the city where I wanted to practice. Some of the reasons :

1. The firm was very selective even at top schools, out of the 13 HLS students in my summer class about 8 were on law review…I didn’t want to deal with the stigma refers to where your assumed that you were not qualified to be there – it’s one thing to deal with that in law school, and another to deal with it where your ability to move up the ranks depends on your colleagues trusting your capabilities, on you getting juicy assignments, etc. It is very easy to spend 4-5 years at a firm posing, if folks are not feeling your storos.

2. Covington has a reputation for being intellectually rigorous. The quality of their work product was non-negotiable…better to ask for an extension than turn in a piece of work that is sub-standard. If I was going to spend hours toiling away at a firm, I was determined to at minimum gain excellent skills in the process.

3. I got a good vibe when I interviewed there, and they were the only firm I interviewed with that checked my references thoroughly so I felt that they had a good sense of what kind of an employee a would be beyond what was reflected in my credentials.

4. They were very supportive of public interest work and recognized that working in a firm is not the end-all of lawyering…many of the partners had spent time in both the public and private sector.

5. They had the highest percentage of black partners among their peers in D.C, so there was hope :-)

I had a fantastic summer there and would have gone back if it wasn’t for my decision to move back to Africa, but it was clear to me that staying at the firm long enough to make partner would be a huge challenge even with the above reasons and all measures the firm had taken to address “diversity issues.” And this brings me back to the debate around the article…even assuming that minorities and whites are hired based on the same standards as far as grades, I still think attrition would be a big problem.

Being a minority at the average big law firm is a lonely experience. For instance, during my summer at Covington, there was only one black female associate working there out of about 250 associates. While it was great to have role models in the partnership ranks, the fact that there was practically no black folk in the associate “trenches” was something to worry about. Some people might think this is no big deal, but at some point you get tired of fitting into other people’s point of reference. Like sometimes you want to come into work and discuss just how awful the BET music awards were without drawing blank stares :-) The sad thing is that the low numbers create a vicious cycle – you get there, you struggle, you leave and firms keep battling with the issue of retention.

Also, in your average law firm, you generally get good work from partners who know you and like you – no easy task when you typically have little in common with the people who are supposed to get to know you. While I enjoyed most of my events that summer, I also went through one painful experience where I might have as well just slid and hid under the table because clearly no one had anything to say to me through most of the dinner.

Then you have to deal with things like worry about the fact that an attorney is going to ignore you, at some function for instance (or worse ask you to do admin work) because the only black people he/she generally sees at the firm are support staff. One of my classmates who summered with me arrived at a function at a restaurant a bit early than the rest of the associate/summer associate crew…the associate in charge of the function went up to her and assumed she was working at the restaurant (this despite the fact that everyone at the firm gets a “facebook” and associates hosting events are supposed flip through the book before each event to refresh themselves on who’s who…and for Chrissake we were only 3 black females there that summer).

(cue Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man)

I’m sure my experiences are not unique (and that’s at a progressive firm). My point is that while empirical studies are all well and good, there are some non-objective factors that do have an impact on one’s ability to stay the course at a firm and that will continue to cause high attrition rates even if hiring standards were equal.

10 comments to Racial preferences and U.S. law firms – my two cents

  • GG

    While I have not read your long winding article, has anyone considered the fact that the attrition rate could be attributed to the hostilities and discrimination they face in their places of work owing due to their minority status.
    I agree that a lot of companies, not just law firms, ‘lower’ their standards so as to employ more minorities. The same could be said of women, but we don’t see the same rate of attrition because they continue to be favored in the work place by their male seniors for obvious reasons.

  • anonymous

    Ory take this as a postive feedback. You reprsent the creme of the crop but your blog leaves a lot to be desired. For the most part your ideas are present but the presentation tells half the story. More so if you want other people to value us Africans, you as the creme of the crop have to exemplify competence in the way you present yourself to the rest of the world out there. Don’t blog in your pyjamas. Besides that I think that you have what it takes to be a mover and shaker. Just polish it up.

    Hi Anon, thanks for your feedback. I do reserve the right to not always “exemplify competence” on my blog…that is after all what blogging is all about. If people are valuing Africans based on my occasional musings, I’d suggest that you have bigger things to worry about than the fact that I blog in my pyjamas (I actually do blog in my pyjamas).

  • Four things:
    (i)Anecdotal evidence and reality on the ground shows that you have to be at least twice as as good as a white to be picked over the white
    (ii)Just because federal laws changed to protect minorities does not translate to people’s changed hearts
    (iii) The Media continues to propagate (i suspect intentionally) the -ve stereotypes
    (iv) The African Americans have found themselves in a cycle that they seem unable to break out of and this continues to reinforce the stereotypes.

    How to deal with this? Change the white guys heart so that he believes other non-whites are also people? Almost impossible.

    But we can prepare young and ambitious Africans who seek work and biz opportunities in the west. They should at least shed off any notions that they will be treated equally

  • I’m not going to read Professor Sander’s whole paper. In social science studies “data” are important. Grades in school is a handy set of data available. But I certainly agree with you that the process of making partner is dependent on relationships developed in practice. So far as I can see Professor Sander does not examine or describe this process rather merely assumes it a matter of “cream rising to the top.” In general how do grades in law school correlate to making partner? Without having read Sander’s paper, only judging from the abstract, his conclusion that affirmative hiring of minorities contributes to white dominance of law firms seems a confirmation of his own bias.

    You on the other hand raise many intriguing points bout relationships in work settings. In groups of decision makers where decisions have bearing on diverse groups, representation of diverse points of view among the decision makers is valuable. It’s good to shed some light on our blind spots. Token representation doesn’t work. It’s difficult for one person to raise a point of view knowing that it’s going to be different from everyone else’s in the room. But if that person knows that there will be at least one other who will understand her perspective it becomes easier to raise the point.

    The shorter version: diversity is plural.

    This applies to all sorts of groupings of people. And I see the “over-representation” in hiring of minorities among law firms as a reasonable strategy to move towards more representative staffing. Attention to the sorts of issues you bring up seem more important than “Dr. Feelgood” Sander’s prescription. Grr…male Chauvinist while wearing a progressive mantel.

    Xerox is one corporation that addresses the important business relationships in their staff development. Not perfect, of course, but there are models out there showing just how ridiculously narrow Professor Sander’s study is.

  • Princess

    I love reading your blogs. This issue is one that exists in huge firms. I work at an IP Law Firm and I was a Summer Associate at various law firms while in Law School and couldn’t agree more. I am the only Black person at my firm..they don’t even have the token black person in the copy center/mail room like other IP Firms do. I have had to prove myself and my billing is extremely high, but I know I could never make Partner at this Firm.

  • Despite being a NYtimes subscriber, I never did get around to reading this article; so thank you for summarising it for me.I do feel that you have touched on some poignant points.
    Half of the practice of law is conducted on golf courses,country clubs and regalas.If you cannot make these contacts and bring in the required cases than you are going to rot away in the law firm.
    I do agree that many firms do hire black people just for diversity purposes.You would be surprised in uni how often I am asked to pose for pics due to the deficiency of black males in my department and in uni in general.So I guess when black people realise they are merely there for dressing purposes, they move on.
    There is alot that has can be said about this issue and I think you have touched on them.
    ps:Dont bother with ppl like anon.Everyone has something to say and it isnt always of interest.

  • I do like the casual style of you blogging in pajamas. It gives the impression that you are approachable.
    The black woman issue in USA is a complicated one – I have tried but never been able to connect with the american black. Maybe you black women are just too sensitive about being black and female. I believe (could be very wrong) that excellence is hard to ignore. I want to believe that if anyone worked hard (as some black women do) and ignored the urge to attract attention or the discriminatory distractions, that they would make partners/ownership within a reasonable time. I have noticed that most young lawyers that make alot of money (irrespective of ethnicity) in DC don’t actively practise with prestigious firms but apply their background in other industries.

    Trust me Mutuku, this is not about being sensitive about being black and female otherwise black male partner numbers would be much higher….they aren’t. And if making partner was all about working hard, lots more people across the board (not just minorities) would be partner…it’s a lot more political than that.

  • Rosita

    My two cents on this issue. As a black female professional in this country I have always maintained the opinion that 1) RACISM will always exist so focus most on mitigating its effects i.e. gain respect through consistent competence, WHITES will always harbor preconceived predjudices but I give them credit, they value competence especially when it saves their skins, and with gruding respect can give you room to manuevor professionally, 2) personality and social skills can make the difference, personally that’s why I think Africans fare better than African Americans in a lot of spheres in general. I suspect in the law profession, schmoozing is king and even though they may never fall over themselves to make you partner, word will spread that you’re competent enough to PLAY IN THEIR LEAGUE and this helps irrespective of whether you move on to greener pastures……………3) sometimes its more advantageous to be the TOKEN BLACK, I have certainly found that to be true in my career. For starters you can create your own narrative in terms of professional expectations and are not hobbled by baggage that sometimes comes with being a member of the BLACK FRATERNITY AT WORK, two if you’re exceptional you take all the glory i.e. no paying of dues to mentors, pioneers etc……three, you can use your isolation to your advantage i.e. sharpen your edge without having to stab your miro comrades in the back etc (we all know navigating the corporate world is a bloodsport moreso if you are a minority). Enough said, Ory keep on keepin’ on, you’re the reason there’s hope for the rest of us :)

    Thanks Rosita! :-) All the things you’ve pointed out are true…it’s definitely not impossible to make partner, my point is that the fact that black people have the extra hurdles to jump over may account for the high rate of attrition – sometimes it’s just not worth changing who you are or maintaing dual personalities just so that you can say you made it.

  • bemused

    The “lawyers who make alot of money” might not be doing the things that are done at the prestigious firms. They might not have access to the top cases. Also, this “ignored the urge to attract attention” is really a handicap we bring to the States. It is those who attract attention, blow their own horn that make it here, it is not viewed as a virtue like at home.

    What Ory mentions are things that are observable in most professions, especially if one wants to move to the top. The elite in this country do not really mix with minorities, most minorities are at best an odd curiosity. I am still amazed to hear and observe their behaviour.

    Bemused, I agree with you on the blowing your horn bit…it’s a real disservice to us.

  • Njamba

    it is a lonely world over here. I work in corporate world in an auditing department and in the whole corporate Accounting and Finance deparment we are only three blacks.
    I am the only one in the department. Were it no for other interests I would have walked away from this place.
    I can imagine what it would feel in a law firm. That is why most successful lawyers or african professionals are the private practitioners.