Coping with Bias at Your Law Firm

coping with bias at the law firm

In an earlier article, I discussed how to get comfortable with your identity and bring your best self to work. But, what happens when once you get there? Diverse lawyers encounter daily affronts to their identities in law firms: the names of two black male associates are constantly confused; a female associate is mistaken for a secretary; an associate with a visual impairment is assured she is seen as qualified.  As Vernā Myers describes in Moving Diversity Forward, these small indignities, termed identity abrasions or micro-inequities, can have a large impact on diverse attorneys.

[They] sting and shock. They can happen before one knows it, and there is little one can do about them. They can create a profound frustration and often anger in those who are subjected to them because they are subtle, often unintentional, and hard to put one’s finger on. They are not egregious comments or behaviors and therefore they are difficult to talk about and correct. Yet, when they happen over and over again, they accumulate and develop a weight on their own. They fester and become a wound that is reopened each time another slight occurs.

These experiences are not only humiliating, but also isolating.  Such experiences  help explain the mass exodus of diverse associates from law firms. For instance, more than half of minority associates bid their law firms farewell within three years; two-thirds do the same within four years compared to an overall attrition rate of 43% and 56%, respectively.

How Should a Lone Associate Cope? 

These are weighty considerations for any professional to cope with, let alone a junior associate at a law firm. So, how do you handle the awkward moments caused by micro-inequities? While not a long-term fix, I have found the following three-step process helpful:

Step 1. Did you see something?

As noted above, micro-inequities are often hard to discern and/or unintended. To guard against any possible heightened sensitivity, review the situation with someone you trust to see if they come away with the same impression. You may also want to inquire with other diverse associates at your firm to see if what you encountered is part of a larger pattern.

I am typically ready to lead the revolution at the drop of a hat, so I carefully check my impressions with a senior associate at my firm and/or a mid-level associate at another firm. These level-headed associates are not afraid to disagree with my assessment, and help me think about innocuous explanations I had not previously considered.

Step 2. Do you say something? 

Remember, not every situation will require your advocacy. Once you have ruled out other possibilities and determined that the situation warrants redress, you must then choose whether to speak out. This is often the toughest decision facing junior associates, and for good reason. Speaking out takes incredible courage. Your law firm may treat you as an unwelcome agitator, or you may even torpedo your career. 

Only you know your firm’s culture, so carefully consider it as you weigh your options. You may want to opt for a low-risk communication such as speaking to your diversity manager on a confidential basis. Alternatively, you may wish to speak with a diverse partner with whom you have a mentor/mentee relationship. High-risk communications include raising the issue with someone within your practice group or the offender directly.

Whomever you speak to, it is important to objectively convey the facts and a possible solution. If possible, frame your concern in terms of its impact on your development and/or the firm. For instance, someone concerned about assignment staffing could say: 

Over the past year I have only worked with Bill, a partner who is also diverse. As much as I enjoy working with him, I believe working with a variety of partners is critical for my professional development and to ensure I am equipped to deal with the variety of issues our clients face. I’d love an opportunity to work with Joe or Greg, for example. Do you think that would be possible within the next 3 months? 

Your speaking out sends an implicit message that you are looking for action, so be prepared to offer concrete steps you would like the firm to undertake.

Again, the decision to speak out is up to you. It is your career and happiness at stake, so make the decision that you are prepared to live with.

Step 3. Do you stay? 

Returning to the staffing example outlined above, you’ve assessed, communicated and now 3 months later, your work has not changed. If you have not done so before, you may wish to address it directly with your practice group (e.g., in your annual review). You may also wish to give them additional time, in order to account for factors beyond the firm’s control (e.g., work volume within the practice group, etc.).

At some point, you must be pragmatic about your ability to affect change as a junior associate. If you are not succeeding in the battle for your own professional development, it is unlikely you will win the war on diversity without great cost and personal sacrifice. Ultimately, if you are not getting the respect or development opportunities you need and deserve, it may be time to move on to the next employer.

Now, I am not telling you to be ready to quit over every slight. Leaving your employer is a significant decision for financial, professional, and personal reasons. But, where micro-inequities are hampering your development as an attorney, you do yourself a disservice to stick with the status quo in the long run.

Next week, I’ll discuss proactive strategies you can use to get the most out of your associate experience. Stay tuned.

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Melinda Hightower

Melinda Hightower

Founder and Chair at Blueprint JD
Melinda Hightower is passionate about legal diversity, literature and community activism. When she’s not busy earning her keep as an attorney, she operates Blueprint JD, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to building diversity in the legal profession.