Honolulu—An American Indian attorney is asked where she keeps her tomahawk. White male partners look past a black lawyer, assuming she is clerical staff. An Asian attorney is called a “dragon lady” when she asserts herself.
A study by the American Bar Association that says those real-life experiences, along with more subtle forms of discrimination, are prompting growing numbers of minority women to abandon the nation’s biggest law firms.
The report, “Visible Invisibility: Women of Color in Law Firms,” was conducted by the bar association with the help of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. Questionnaires were sent to about 1,300 attorneys, both men and women, and responses came from 72 percent, or 920.
Law firms exclude minority women from golf outings, after-hours drinks and other networking events, the study says. Partners neglect the women of color they are supposed to help mentor.
In some cases, partners and senior lawyers disregard minority women less because of outright bigotry than because they have less in common with them and thus don’t connect well with them, the study found.
Firms routinely hand minority women inferior assignments—such as reviewing documents or writing briefs—that provide little opportunity to meet clients, the study says. That means women of color aren’t able to cultivate business relationships and develop the “billable hours” that are the basis of career advancement within a firm.
Among the statistics in the study:
—Forty-four percent of women of color said they were denied desirable assignments, versus 2 percent of white men.
—Forty-three percent of women of color said they had limited access to client development opportunities, compared with 3 percent of white men.
—Nearly two-thirds of women of color said they were excluded from informal and formal networking opportunities, compared with 4 percent of white men.
Such discrimination largely goes unchecked at law firms, forcing women to quit if they want to avoid it, Brown said.
The study cited 2005 data from the National Association of Law Placement showing 81 percent of minority female associates left their jobs within five years of being hired. That figure was up from the late 1990s, when it stood at 75 percent.
Michael Greco, the bar association president, said managing partners at law firms—mostly white men—need to dedicate themselves to reform.
“This is intolerable,” Greco said at a news conference. “It stings the conscience of our profession.”