Nov 1, 2020
Certain things are true about me: I am a Black woman, the great-granddaughter of Mississippi sharecroppers, and a lawyer. All these things mean that I, like many others, operate in a unique space within the practice of law: we are Black, we are women, and we are underrepresented legal practitioners.
The Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Professional recently issued a report which demonstrates that Black female representation in firms is nothing less than dismal. In 2018, 23.4% of Partners in firms were women, while only 0.7% of that figure represented Black women. The numbers for Black female associates are equally troubling: 45.9% of Associates in law firms are women, while only 2.6% of female associates are Black.1
Cincinnati, too, performs below the national average. Of Cincinnati firms reporting to the National Association for Law Placement, 24.4% of partners are women, while 0% are Black women. For associates, 41.5% are women and only 1.97% are Black.2 Local organizations like the Cincinnati Bar Association-Black Lawyers Association of Cincinnati Round Table and the Greater Cincinnati Minority Counsel Program help facilitate advancement of all attorneys of color, but nonetheless, the bill remains long past due for firm leadership to truly, honestly, and intentionally address their inability to attract and retain Black female associates, and to include Black women among their leadership.
I graduated from the University of Cincinnati College of Law in 2015 and participated in a federal clerkship for just under two years. With a May 2015 graduation, I would have expected that firms hiring associates in 2013 through 2017 in the greater Cincinnati area would have a better representation of Black female associates. That clearly is not the case. In my personal experience, I know of at least five highly qualified Black female attorneys who have left law firms in the Greater Cincinnati area either for in-house positions, for new career paths, or for more diverse legal markets.
Why? Because Black women attorneys face numerous indignities that our white and even our Black male counterparts do not. It begins in law school. In interviews for law firm internships, even within the most “progressive” firms, our work product does not receive the same judgment as our white counterparts. We must then graduate and pass the same bar as our white counterparts, and even still, even when the only qualitative thing known about the attorney is her color, Black attorneys continue to be judged more harshly.3 Oftentimes we turn in a project, never to work with the assigning partner again, and are left wondering, “Why?”
Our work ethic, appearance and intelligence are challenged and questioned at every intersection. Furthermore, just as we think we’ve found a space that is truly accepting, we still walk into a courtroom or interact with outside individuals at motion hours, closings, happy hours, board meetings, depositions, or any other event, who too often continue to ask, “Are you an attorney ?” or “How long have you been a paralegal?” or we are otherwise confronted with assumptions about who we are and why we are present. The stories my Black women attorney friends and colleagues share run the gamut. We each have one. The indignities continue no matter how “presentable” you are, how educated you are, how smart you are, how “articulate” you are, how graceful you are, or how “gentle” you are. Being a Black woman is hard. Being a Black female attorney is even harder. But for every degradation we face, we chalk it up, we move on, and we persevere.
Nonetheless, Black women are tired. We are tired of the affronts we face as we try to practice and refine our craft as lawyers. Too often, we leave the practice because the bar has failed to adequately address the specific issues of diversity and inclusion which affect us. It is truly frustrating to watch your profession fail to do better.
How do we as a profession remedy these indignities? As my colleague and friend Jason Stuckey suggested in a previous article, we must spend time reflecting on Black representation in the programs and medias that we consume.4 I completely agree, and would also encourage law firms to intentionally examine their diversity and inclusion efforts to ensure they achieve equity. Meaning that each firm ideally identifies the various imbalances at play and creates a process to address them. For example, meaningful work and professional development are important to any young lawyer’s success. Do the processes each firm adopts for tracking an associate’s development take into consideration barriers like access, scheduling, or failure to span cultural divides, which might foreclose a Black woman associate from meeting an expectation of participation? Are hiring criteria equitable such that they do not rely solely on measures which continually foreclose Black female attorneys from hiring opportunities? We as a bar can face the reality that our diversity and inclusion efforts have not achieved the desired results, while also challenging ourselves to do better, to do more, and to adopt a collective approach to our efforts.
Because of our country’s history, it will take intentional equity action to obtain true diversity and inclusion. Our nation is in another period of racial awakening and reckoning. This necessarily requires the bar to engage in serious self-reflection, not only at the individual level, but also at the institutional level by intentionally asking and answering, “How can we do and be better?”
Rickman is an associate attorney with DBL Law where she actively practices in the firm’s administrative law and civil litigation practice groups. Prior to DBL Law, Rickman clerked for Chief Judge Jeffery Hopkins of the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Ohio and is a 2015 graduate of the University of Cincinnati College of Law.
1 See Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession: IILP Review 2019-2020: The state of Diversity and Inclusion in the Legal Profession. http://www.theiilp.com/IILP-Review-2019-20, (pg 29-30).
2 National Association of Law Placement: 2018 Report on Diversity in U.S. Law Firms https://www.nalp.org/uploads/2018NALPReportonDiversityinUSLawFirms_FINAL.pdf
3 Partners in study gave legal memo a lower rating when told author wasn’t white: https://www.abajournal.com/news/article/hypothetical_legal_memo_demonstrates_unconscious_biases; Oops! Your Implicit Bias is Showing: https://www.shenegotiates.com/blog/2014/4/16/oops-your-implicit-bias-is-showing.
4 See Recognizing Systemic Racism Starts with Self-Reflection Co-authored by Jason Stuckey and Lori Anthony