Issues,  Legal Practice

Break It: Moving Past Stereotypes to Advance your Career

I want to direct folks back to the ABA report about women of color leaving law. The report is great and breaks down so many of the issues women face that cause a road block in their career. One frequent theme that the participants highlight is how difficult it is to find mentors/sponsors in their career because they are not able to make a connection with those in positions to help advance their careers. The women profiled found it difficult to connect with the white male leaders in their firms, but noticed that the men did not have that same hesitancy/barrier to help white women. They hypothesize that a big portion of why that is comes down to how those people in power can relate to the junior staff they are trying to help. It’s not a large leap for a white man to see their junior staffer like a sibling or daughter, which makes it easier for them to subconsciously want to help. Whereas, with Latinas the only connection they likely have–if any–are interactions as support staff (admin assistance, domestic workers, etc).

We’ve seen this before in other studies–specifically in Black men as executives. In one study, a Black doctor revealed that a white colleague explained to him that it was difficult to view him as peer because he’d never worked with a Black person in that way before.  This inability to create a connection to help a junior staffer is frustrating and so easily fixed if people in power took a moment to recognize their own biases and misperceptions. But instead the burden is placed on us.

Before I move on, I want to pause and say unequivocally that it is NOT our responsibility to expand anyone’s mind and help them see us as equally capable of doing the work they do. If someone has accepted a leadership role in their firm, then the duty is on them to do what they need to make sure they are bringing in the best talent to their firm and not letting their biases impede that. Firms, who benefit greatly from supporting diverse talents, should establish programs and protocols to make sure their biases aren’t impeding their work. Law schools, who are responsible for identifying and molding future leaders of our profession, should ensure implicit bias training is standard in their teaching (shout out to my alma mater that makes this a mandatory 1L course!). And State bars also have a responsibility to address this in a substantial way via mandatory CLEs. It is no way on us–women of color–to break ourselves to disprove some stereotype placed on us.

And when we gain positions of power, we must push our firms, our Bars, our schools to do better.

Yet, in real life, you’re trying to advance. You want to reach your career goals and need to figure out how to get around the real barriers people are placing in front of you. What can you do?

One. Go in eyes open. All firms and legal aids talk big game about diversity. But tell me, what do the leaders in your job look like? Is there diverse junior staff that seem to all eventually leave? Go into your job with eyes open. Recognize that you may get a lot of experience, but that there will be an eventual ceiling unless and until they take equity issues seriously. Plan your next few years–maybe you’re new, so do whatever you can to get as much experience as you can and then in year 3-4, if you don’t see traction, identify lateral moves that may put you in a better path. I’ve known quite a few ladies that are doing phenomenal work, are not appreciated, and get hired on as a partner or senior associate at a different firm instead. Go where you will bloom.

Two. Grow as much as you can. You’re there to do a great job in a specific position, but that also means growing on all other levels. If there are leadership trainings, or any training that would benefit you (trial ad, negotiations, etc) take it! Don’t wait for a boss to tell you to consider it, look for the opportunities yourself. Taking these courses not only is good for your resume, it increases your skills that you can leverage when/if you do a lateral move.

Three. Each impression matters. I wish I could say that all your white colleagues are scrutinized like you or that you are given the same grace as them, but I like to keep it real here. Go in prepared, each time, and be the most prepared whenever possible. Personally, I liked wow-ing people when they have such low expectations because it makes them feel dumb (call me Petty Boop), but even if you’re a better person than me, being doubly prepared will establish your reputation for you as an asset to the team. Be a good team player as well so that if you do decide to move on, you have good references from other senior attorneys who can help you out.

 

I always get so annoyed when I have to write these types of posts. I know so many bad ass lawtinas, who can run circles around so many other attorneys, but the struggle to have that capacity and skills recognized is so frustrating! And lest you think I’m exaggerating about people’s low expectation and their perception of you, here is one of my fave examples: I am a really good trainer and presenter–it’s a skill I’ve been honing for a decade now. So, about two years ago, I was invited to do a big training for pro bono attorneys that started with breakfast. The morning of, I was going over the structure, casually, with folks as they ate. With five minutes before the start time, one of my senior colleagues, who was observing, felt the to take me to the side and encouraged me to introduce myself to the attorneys when they training starts. Like she really thought I was just going to jump into the content without saying my name………. LOL. I’m laughing now, but my face when she told me. It was all I could do to say lady go sit down somewhere. But like we almost always do, I just simply swallowed her stupid comment. And then I rocked the training, but I was lucky that she slipped and showed how low her expectation was of me–that’s not always the case. And while it’s not our job to fix those misperceptions, there’s no way we can let them be what stops us from advancing in our career.

 

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