Attorneys of color often carry a burden of expectations that others do not; pressure to perform perfectly at all times may weigh heavily on them, say Davis Wright Tremaine diversity, equity, and inclusion chief Yusuf Zakir and Major, Lindsey & Africa partner Kate Reder Sheikh. They write about steps firms can take to help, including embedding a commitment to DEI across the organization.
Perfection is not attainable.
Yet, people of color are often faced with a paradox. They are expected to be perfect. When they fail to meet that unattainable standard, they are far more likely to be left to the wayside.
This challenge also permeates law firms, as reflected in many interviews that MLA recruiters recently conducted with Am Law 200 associates of color.
The burden on attorneys of color to be perfect is tremendous. There is a pressure to never appear too angry, too excitable, too anything—so as to avoid being stereotyped. And there is no easy solution.
To start, however, law firms need to center on a DEI strategy that focuses on embedding a commitment to DEI across the organization. DEI does not work when it is in a silo. It requires the active participation of leaders and stakeholders with incentives such as billable hour credit.
Addressing the long-term impact of exclusion in law firms will require a multi-pronged approach because this issue permeates all aspects of the legal industry, starting in law school, continuing through the associate experience, and ultimately partnership makeup.
At Davis Wright Tremaine, for example, the firm has centered its strategy, initiatives, and efforts on four pillars: community (fostering an inclusive culture), growth (ensuring equity in access to opportunities), education (elevating individual and collective consciousness) and engagement (collaborating with external stakeholders).
Pressure Mounts Early
For attorneys of color, the narrowing of the tightrope begins early. There is significant overlap between attorneys of color and those who are first-generation law students. First-generation students often lack equitable access to information, long before they even consider taking the LSAT.
These inequities result in disparate outcomes. For example, the average LSAT score for Black test takers in 2016-2017 was 142, whereas it was 153 for their White and Asian peers, impacting law school admissions. This is problematic given that the LSAT is not a reliable predictor of law school success (or success in practice).
Once in law school, significant information deficits continue to occur. For example, the importance of 1L grades in the job search process and the strange dance of on-campus interviews are often foreign concepts to first-generation students.
By providing equity in access to information, we can level the playing field for students considering the law and for those who make it to law school. Many law firms have invested in these efforts—but we need to do more.
Lack of representation at the partnership level poses another significant challenge for attorneys of color, particularly early-career associates seeking mentorship and guidance. Law firms are still primarily White and male. Only 9% of equity partners in multi-tier law firms are people of color and only 2% are Black (and less than 1% are Black women).
While representation of associates of color has continued to rise, ascension to partnership continues to be elusive for people of color. In 2019, 24% of departures from law firms were attorneys of color. This was up from 22% in 2018 and were the highest figures to date.
No Benefit of the Doubt
These representation challenges have a significant impact on attorneys of color. One of those impacts is the paradox of perfection. “I do not get the same benefit of the doubt on projects or if I say I’m busy,” one Black associate told us in an interview.
There is a corresponding pressure to worry about how one’s individual actions may be considered to represent a broader demographic group. An IP associate at an AmLaw 200 firm told us, “I feel a ton of responsibility to ‘not screw this up’ for the Latino or Latina associates who come to my firm after me. I worry that if I fail, the firm will be reticent to hire people who look like me later.”
The challenges continue with the practice of law in a number of ways. First, the lack of representation results in a feeling of isolation. “I am so aware that I am the only Black man on my team. When conversation in a meeting turned to rap music, everyone turned and looked at me, as the resident expert,” an associate at an AmLaw 20 firm recounted to us.
He also expressed that while he knows he deserves to be at his firm and is more than capable of doing the work, he worries that he is seen as a “diversity hire,” creating additional pressure to be “perfect.”
This permeates to other processes in a law firm, as well. For example, attorneys of color feel tokenized when they are only asked to interview people of their demographic background but seldom asked to interview other candidates.
“I knew I was going to be put as a face of diversity on the website, but I was still disappointed when it happened,” an associate at an AmLaw 50 firm told us.
An associate at an AmLaw 100 firm said, “I have been asked to join matters in ways that highlight the fact that I am diverse, rather than the fact that I have applicable skills, which sometimes makes it feel as if my value is in my diversity, not my competence as a lawyer.”
To facilitate equity in access, law firms may consider implementing formal sponsorship programs to establish sponsorship relationships. Organically, these relationships are often built on affinity bias, which is why they form less often for underrepresented populations. However, these relationships can be built and nurtured, but to do so requires effort and a real commitment from firm leadership.
To reduce feelings of isolation, we must continue building community. Most law firms have embraced affinity groups. In addition, office-level DEI efforts can be used to strengthen relationships and make people feel welcome. This is particularly critical in our hybrid world where efforts to foster collaboration and respect are critical to inclusion and must be done far more intentionally than before.In the long term, the solution is simple: representation. Representation is the antidote to tokenization. If we want to tackle the paradox of perfection, we need our organizations to be reflective of our society as a whole and of the communities we serve.