Legal Practice

The Lack of Diversity in Big Law

I just read this article on the New York Times about the difficulty Black lawyers face in Big Law. Since the representation of Latinos (let alone Latinas) is far fewer than Black attorneys, I can confidently say that the struggles in making partner are very similar.  I don’t want to get down on Big Law because every area of law, whether it’s public interest, government, solo, has obstacles one must face in regards to ethnicity, race, and gender.  In short, no area of law is diverse.

Even in my agency the representation of Latinas lawyers is lacking.  But Big Law is different–I’m going to come out and say that it’s harder. Here are some harsh truths that the article reiterates; harsh truths, I’ve heard many times in regards to why people of color don’t make Partner easily:    1) It can be difficult to interact with the majority of your coworkers.  Yes, of course, you’re used to working with White people or rich people or people with power, but once you reach Big Law, it’s a higher level of power. These are people who may not have had to interact with people of color very much, if at all.  It can be difficult for you to acclimate to this new culture.

2) You will have to fight against unconscious bias.  The article describes a study on unconscious bias and how difficult it is to overcome.  Hell, a lot of us will even experience conscious bias–I remember when I interned for a rich, white criminal defense attorney who was nice, but made a comment to me about how it was in the Latino culture to molest children.  I wish I was exaggerating.  She wasn’t being mean about it–she said it with such a matter-of-fact tone, like an, “of course, they’d commit this type of crime.”  That was a comment from a person exposed to diverse groups of people–imagine what someone who doesn’t interact with people of color believes and thinks?

  1. You don’t have the foundational network necessary to make partner.  I.e. your parents aren’t rich. How can you become a rainmaker when neither you nor your family have connections to bring in big business? It isn’t impossible, but it will be hard.  A harder road than others in Big Law.

So, I say this not to discourage anyone from Big Law or the private sector. I list these obstacles because I don’t want people to see the lack of representation of Latina lawyers and assume it’s the Latina’s fault for not making the grade.  Instead, we should recognize that there are a lot of parts at play.  I hope that firms realize that importance of diversity and do more than have a few tepid programs that don’t go very far. I hope they do realize that diverse employees can bring in a wider range of clients and business opportunities.  But I’ll be honest and say, we have a long way to go before Big Law feels more comfortable for us.

However, I’m not one to discourage someone from this opportunity–while Big Law is not for me, I’m not going to turn my nose at another sister making money, closing deals, and bucking the system by joining a rank that normally doesn’t accept us; instead, what you can do to prepare for a firm position:

One. Do your research. Go into your job knowing what kind of firm it is–is it a firm that really values diversity (and you see it in your coworkers) or do you know it may feel isolating?  What’s your plan for days that you do feel isolated? Are there diversity initiatives you can join or at least know alumni you can interact with? When you go in as knowledgeable as possible then some of the culture shock won’t be as jarring.

Two. Seek mentors & commit to networking.  Obviously, we all need mentors and legal professionals, but doubly so, if you’re interested in Big Law. Actively participate in your firm’s programs; go to alumni events to meet people who are willing to support a fellow alumni; join professional organizations that include people in your practice area so that you can learn from your peers. The more people you know, the bigger your support system can be, and that’s always helpful.

Three. Help others.  Say you’ve made it–maybe not yet Partner, but comfortable and satisfied as an Associate. Great! Let others in on your secret! Make it a point to mentor other Latinas at your law school or in other associations. Speak honestly about your experience and how you were able to navigate it.  Most importantly, help those in power know when they’re stepping out of line. Once you’ve proved yourself as an associate, you have more power to take stands.  So don’t be shy at calling out bad behavior or problematic comments when you can because that’s one of the many positives in a diverse workplace–people learn from one another.

Will these actions guarantee success in large firms?  Quien sabe? But if you put in the effort and it doesn’t work out, at least you know you did your best to agitate the system.

If you’re in Big Law, has it been an easy ride or have you faced isolation/culture shock?

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