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Minority women find blocks on the path to the top

Posted Aug 1, 2013 2:00 AM CDT
By Rachel M. Zahorsky

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by Marc Hauser.

Minority women make up only 2.16 percent of the nation’s law firm partners. In fact, for our June cover story on the female leaders of the Am Law 200 firms, not a single minority woman was present (“Women in Charge,” June).

Recessionary losses of associates and partners, including “a disproportionate number of minorities,” is one cause for their absence at the top, says Ngozi C. Okorafor, former president of the Black Women Lawyers’ Association of Greater Chicago.

But unique challenges minority women face at large law firms—cultural differences, the lack of internal support and networking opportunities, race and gender stereotypes—are far more consequential than the recession, Okorafor says. “From my vantage point, corporate in-house legal departments, nonprofit and government leadership roles are far more accessible for women of all races, but specifically minority women.”

Zaldwaynaka Scott says, “Corporations have been looking at these issues for far longer [than traditional law firms] and appreciate how diversity impacts their bottom line.” Scott, a partner at Kaye Scholer in Chicago and co-chair of the firm’s white-collar litigation practice, says “the stats show that having a diverse set of voices can be something that boosts the profitability of a business. Law firms are just starting to grapple with that issue.”

Firm leaders are realizing that clients with diverse leadership no longer appreciate homogenous legal teams at the table, adds Patricia Brown Holmes, a partner and executive committee member at Schiff Hardin in Chicago. “Business is relationships, and if we’re going to relate to our clients, we need people out there who understand that talent comes in all different shapes and sizes.”

BigLaw’s entrenched recruiting methods, confined to elite law schools that include a very small pool of minority students, limit minority presence at firms. And for those who do make it to a large firm, peer and client relationships within the firm and mainstream bar associations can be difficult to forge.

Tiffany R. Harper, newly installed president of the Black Women Lawyers’ Association of Greater Chicago, says being one of the few black female lawyers at a BigLaw firm that lacked strong diversity initiatives or encouragement to plug into outside minority organizations took its toll on her morale.

Although she’s still one of five (out of 700) black female lawyers at the Chicago firm of Polsinelli, Harper says her firm’s commitment to her minority bar leadership roles and her presence on the firm’s diversity committee have renewed her passion for practice and bolstered her commitment to remain on a partnership track. Her efforts have also raised the firm’s profile, she says.

“I’m used to being an extreme minority,” Harper says, “but I don’t want that to be the case always. I think that support is missing and partially why firms are unable to keep talent.”

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