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Owning Your Seat at the Table as a Woman of Color

Diversity discussions have led to critical assessments of the landscape of the legal profession along race and gender lines. However, very little time is devoted to the important discussion of the role of women of color, who are impacted by the unique intersection of race and gender. While books like "Lean In" and "Nice Girls Don't Get The Corner Office" emphasize the importance of women in leadership and making room at the table, women of color continue to be systematically excluded from both the table and the conversation.

Gender affinity groups for women attorneys have long lamented gender disparity in the legal profession. Women comprise 50.9 percent of the population in the United States according to the 2010 census, yet they remain underrepresented in the legal profession, making up only 33.3 percent of attorneys according to a January 2013 report from the American Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession. Minority representation in the legal profession is even more dismal. Minority attorneys only account for 12 percent of the lawyers at the country's largest law firms, according to The American Lawyer's 2013 Diversity Scorecard.

The legal profession continues to struggle with diversity along both gender and racial lines—with women of color precariously perched in the crossfires and notably absent from the conversations surrounding diversity, recruitment and retention. Women of color are grossly underrepresented in law firms, particularly among the partnership ranks. According to a February bulletin by the National Association of Law Placement, only 7.1 percent of partners were minorities and, of those, a mere 2.3 percent were women of color. NALP further concluded that "minorities in general and minority women, specifically, are most likely by far to be found among the ranks of associates and staff associates," but women of color are notably absent from partnership and leadership positions within law firms.

While the conversation around women in the legal profession has shed light on the importance of women, in general, having a seat at the table, it may not be enough that women of color just be invited to the table. They have to be ready and willing to take the right seat. Minority women attorneys represented 11 percent of associates and 14 percent of staff attorneys according to NALP, and when compared with the number of women of color who reach the elusive ranks of partnership, minority women attorneys are left wondering: Is this seat taken?

Minority women attorneys must recognize that the legal profession isn't rushing to pull a chair out for them. The sooner minority women attorneys realize that they have the ability to change the conversation about diversifying the legal profession and just as much of a right to sit at the table as their counterparts, the quicker the legal landscape will change for the better. Minority women attorneys must become comfortable with the idea of not only having a seat at the table, but aspiring to hold the seat at the table. Recognizing early on in your career that the desire to have a seat at the table is both valid and attainable is an arduous process for many minority women attorneys, who must overcome myriad structural obstacles and self-imposed limitations to become comfortable with taking their seat at the table.

Don't Be Discouraged By Lack of Room

The legal profession lags behind other professions in the area of minority representation, so it should come as no surprise that as associates at law firms, women of color are hard-pressed to look around the proverbial table and identify anyone who looks like them. In the competitive field of law, it is critical for fledgling attorneys of all races, genders and ethnic backgrounds to develop mentoring relationships that will help them to shape their careers and navigate the profession. With very few women and even fewer women of color among the ranks of partners, minority women associates are very likely to find themselves without either a female or minority mentor. Becoming comfortable with the idea of sitting at the table requires women of color to rethink their preconceived notions of mentorship. By redefining mentoring through forging relationships within their firms and throughout the legal community, as well as across professions, minority women attorneys can strengthen their networks and build much-needed support groups to champion them along their path to career success. In order to reserve a seat at the table, women of color must bolster their own confidence in their abilities, develop a willingness to be their own champions and bolster their own professional reputation through self-marketing.

Don't Wait for a Chair

The National Association of Women Lawyers recently issued a report summarizing the results of their eighth annual National Survey on Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms. NAWL concluded that "minority women lawyers are not being advanced consistent with the available pipeline and are being advanced less often than male minority lawyers." As NAWL reported, even with pipeline programs in place focused on identifying diverse talent, minority women attorneys are often overlooked and passed over. With the very system failing to recognize the value of women of color, minority women lawyers cannot wait for a seat to be offered to them. They must step up and pull out their own chairs. Moreover, with few examples to pattern themselves after, women of color must be brave enough to pioneer their own paths to partnership and create room for themselves at the table. This often means creating alternative opportunities through networks outside the firm, developing an entrepreneurial spirit with an eye toward business development, and establishing a reputation for consistently producing high-quality work product.

While preconceived notions around gender and race undoubtedly contribute to diversity disparities in the legal profession, there are proactive steps minority women attorneys can take to counteract self-imposed limits. Women of color bring invaluable and unique perspectives to the table and deserve their seat there. One important part of owning that seat is overcoming self-limiting thoughts and beliefs. In her book, "Lean In," Sheryl Sandberg aptly identified this self-limiting process as the "leadership ambition gap." This gap is that little voice in your head, reinforced by societal norms, telling you that you shouldn't aim so high, or that only men can aspire to hold leadership positions. It is imperative that women of color break their own glass ceiling and continue to validate their own aspirations of sitting at the table. Owning a seat at the table should not be confused with entitlement—women of color must be confident in their own self-worth and steadfast in their belief that they are assets to their employers and the legal profession as a whole.

Choose Your Seat Wisely

Sitting at the table doesn't occur through mere happenstance. It requires diligence, focus and a strategic plan. Recent research conducted by Corporate Counsel Women of Color found a 78 percent attrition rate for women of color in law firms—the highest of any group. Armed with the knowledge of the attrition rate of women of color in private practice, minority women attorneys must be purposeful in positioning themselves for career success and become part of the conversation concerning succession planning. The management committees at many firms dedicate countless hours to succession planning; however, minority women associates are seldom identified as future law firm leaders, according to NAWL.

Through strategic planning and goal setting, women of color can change the conversation surrounding succession, place themselves on the partnership track and move themselves closer to getting seats at the table. By articulating measurable goals, actively pursuing internal and external leadership opportunities to prove their acumen and ability, and meeting challenges with both enthusiasm and confidence, women of color can position themselves in the forefront of the conversation surrounding succession planning. Merely having a seat at the table isn't enough; it is critical for legacy building and the overall advancement of the profession that more minority women attorneys claim influential seats at the table.

The process of owning your seat at the table as a woman of color in the legal profession requires the courage to challenge your systemic exclusion from the table, the fortitude to overcome self-doubt and nagging insecurities about your right to a seat at the table, and the resilience to ignore those who tell you the seat is already taken. Women of color have the power to change the conversation surrounding diversity, leadership and the future of the legal profession by making strategic career decisions, continuing to defy self-limiting expectations, and aspiring to lead from the seat at the table. It's your seat. Own it.

Owning Your Seat at the Table as a Woman of Color.pdf

Teleicia J. Rose focuses her practice on labor and employment matters, assisting clients in EEOC and Pennsylvania Human Relations Act claims. She handles age, national origin and disability discrimination issues under Title VII, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967.

The information contained in this publication should not be construed as legal advice, is not a substitute for legal counsel, and should not be relied on as such. For legal advice or answers to specific questions, please contact one of our attorneys.

Reprinted with permission from the April 29, 2014 edition of The Legal Intelligencer © 2014 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. For information, contact 212-457-9411, reprints@alm.com or visit www.almreprints.com. # 201-09-14-06