In 2020, women of color comprised only 15.17% of associates at law firms, and a meager 3.79% of partners, according to the National Association for Law Placement’s (NALP) 2020 “Report on Diversity in U.S. Law Firms.” Black women comprised just 3.04% of associates in 2020, and it took over 10 years to exceed the 2009 figure of 2.93%, per NALP.
Progress is painfully slow when it comes to improving the representation of women of color in law firms. As the country becomes more diverse, and as juries become more diverse, law firms should ask themselves: If one in five prospective jurors are women of color, shouldn’t the attorneys standing before them mirror that reality?
Law firms are failing at retaining women and attorneys of color. In 2019, the U.S. Census Bureau noted that women of color represented 20.3% of the U.S. population, inclusive of Black, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander, and Indigenous women. But as the figures above indicate, that representation is not matched in the legal profession. The 2020 Vault/Minority Corporate Counsel Association “Law Firm Diversity Survey Report,” which surveyed 233 law firms, states that “diversity diminishes dramatically the higher one moves up the leadership ladder.”
Women of color account for 16% of attorneys at the entry level, but only 10% of senior associates, 3% of equity partners, and 4% of managing partners, per McKinsey’s “Women in Law Firms” report. Law firms must be intentional and change quickly to create sustainable, inclusive work environments where women of color want to grow and develop their careers.
Retention of women of color can be influenced heavily by whether a law firm provides equal opportunities for challenging assignments, meaningful mentorship/sponsorship, committees, hiring decisions, and promotions. Law firms also need to exercise inclusivity through parental leave policies, billable credit for diversity work, and Employee Resource Groups.
To truly impact the development of diverse talent, attorneys need to sponsor rather than mentor. The Harvard Business Review says sponsorship is when a mentor “goes beyond giving feedback and advice and uses his or her influence with senior executives to advocate for the mentee.”
From day one, law firms should assign sponsors to young, diverse attorneys to integrate them into the profession, and the assignment should be more significant than monthly lunches. “As a young minority attorney, sponsors (within the firm and outside of the firm) have been invaluable for my growth as an attorney and have assisted me in navigating law firm environments,” says co-author Ebony S. Morris, associate attorney at Garrison, Yount, Forte & Mulcahy LLC.
Next, firms must evaluate their work allocation structure to assign meaningful work and opportunities to their diverse talent. Diverse attorneys should be involved in the cases from start to finish and not only when a diverse face is needed at the table for trial or to interface with clients. “When two large-client insureds requested me as counsel for litigated matters in the state, my managing attorney notified claims management and included me in marketing initiatives for the customer,” says co-author Charise Morgan-Joseph, a staff legal attorney at Zurich N.A. “Not only had my legal skill been acknowledged, but also I had an advocate in a room outside of my sphere.”
Finally, firms should consider re-evaluating their compensation structure. For women attorneys of color, there is a demoralizing reality that they are objectively being paid substantially less than their white, male counterparts, and also less than their white, female counterparts. Per the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), Black women are paid $0.63 for every dollar paid to their white male counterparts, and Latinas earn a paltry $0.55. These wage gaps translate to an annual median loss of $24,110 for Black women and $29,098 for Latinas. Over a 40-year career, this loss is around $1 million for Black and Hispanic women.
“It’s always daunting to ask for a promotion; but I like that, at Zurich, pay scales are transparent and uniform for each position level,” says Morgan-Joseph. “It removes the fear that my white, male peers with equal expertise are being paid more money than I am based on my race or gender.”
Origination credit is another top factor in compensation. However, obtaining origination credit is historically much easier for Caucasian male attorneys compared to women and minority attorneys. Origination credit can span decades; as such, this structure inherently inhibits law firms from quickly and meaningfully achieving gender equity. To be strong allies for diverse attorneys, law firms need compensation tied to client relationships, rather than origination.
When the vast majority of law firm clients—insurance carriers included—have supplier diversity programs, law firms should be taking swift action to correct these inequities. “Insurance carriers are not interested in hiring law firms that do not compensate women of color equally,” says Jocelyn Jopa, Zurich’s director of litigation management.
There is no shortage of levers to pull to fix the pay gap for women of color. Here are a few:
• All incoming attorneys—regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or disability status—should be hired at the same salary and bonus structure.
• Hiring and compensation committees should be meaningfully diverse.
• Firms should not rely on salary history in negotiating incoming attorney salary.
• Firms must establish equal opportunities for advancement within the firm to ensure equal access to salary increases.
• Law firms should regularly review internal pay equity and take swift action to pay people equally for equivalent work.
• Firms must tackle unconscious bias head-on with continuous, ongoing training. Unconscious bias permeates every aspect of talent acquisition and retention.
• Firms should consider making their compensation models more transparent and equitable to boost retention and reveal a clear growth path for diverse talent.
Most importantly, businesses and firms need to challenge the status quo of talent attraction and retention. It is no longer enough to say, “We value diversity.” Old ways will not open new doors, and certainly will not improve pay equity. Businesses and firms must walk the talk to attract and retain diverse talent, particularly women of color.