By Alnisa Bell • January 05, 2017•Writers in Residence, Careers, Firms and the Private Sector
Study after study show that women of color are fading from large law firms and most leave before they are even considered for partnership. Hence, women of color remain the most underrepresented group at the partnership level. The source of this problem is definitely complicated and difficult to pinpoint: is it an issue of law firm culture, a dearth of minority leadership and access to high-ranking mentors and sponsors to guide women of color in their professional development, or a lack of exposure to clients and quality work assignments to develop their legal skills? Perhaps it is not an “either/or situation” but a combination of many of those things, or maybe even something else. While the reasons are important to pinpoint in order to address the root cause behind retention and the lack of advancement, most law firms have certainly expended resources on diversity initiatives and formal mentorship programs, but there may not be a quick-fix solution.
For me, I find reading articles that paint a bleak picture of minority advancement daunting, especially when working long hours only to then be reminded that as a woman of color your prospects for professional advancement are quite dim. Regardless, I continue on the path—and many women of color do. I am hopeful that this blog will inspire other women of color to also continue on the path as long as they are developing professionally and are content. This blog will not focus on discouraging statistics because, to a certain extent, doing so overlooks self-agency (although getting to the root cause of minority women retention/advancement is equally, vitally important). Instead, my hope is for this blog to be empowering.
To take a step back, I should tell you a bit about me and my experience in the profession. So far I have been fortunate to have a rewarding and promising legal career. In 2006, I graduated magna cum laude from Bryn Mawr College, and then graduated from Rutgers School of Law - Newark in 2009. Through the Jack Kent Cooke scholarship, I received a full tuition scholarship to attend law school. Following graduation, I clerked in the Appellate Division in the Superior Court of New Jersey. From there, I worked at a large, regional New Jersey firm before transferring to my current firm, an Am Law 100 firm in New York, in 2011. Since joining, I have practiced labor and employment, while frequently publishing articles and speaking on panels about current developments and trends in employment law. I am also a fellow in the New Jersey State Bar Association Leadership Academy, a program designed to prepare the next generation of leaders of the bar. In line with this, it’s also been important for me to mentor high school students to ensure there are more women of color in the pipeline who are graduating from college, attending law school, and entering the profession. With younger attorneys I mentor on successfully navigating law firm culture, one thing I always reinforce is that although life at law firms is not always easy, success requires setting goals and having a plan.
Too often, I hear that lawyers are risk adverse and want to win at all costs because failure is not an option, but yet many do not lay the groundwork to manifest success in their own professional careers. So I ask, what is your plan? Where do you see yourself in the near-term and further down the road? I can tell you that a woman of color in this profession without a plan is not being strategic. I’ve found that you cannot rely on anyone to chart a course for you.
We will spend one year focusing on such topics as networking, professional branding and development; becoming an expert in a subject matter area; navigating law firm culture; and finding mentors and sponsors—both diverse and non-diverse—because success truly requires all hands on deck. You need to have a network of people whom you can rely on for different needs: those who are familiar with the inner workings of your particular firm, who have enough power to influence the perception of you within the firm and can provide you with quality legal work to hone your skills; those who are honest with you; those who will listen to you when you are having a hard day—and there will be hard days; those who will tell you about professional development opportunities and track your progress; and those who have known you for years who can give you a quick reality check. You want the people on your “A-team” to be somewhat consistent while leaving the door open to allow others to provide their guidance and support. Many leaders are not born, but leaders can be made. You have to be strategic in developing the necessary skills to best position yourself for success.
Although my professional journey is nowhere near complete, I have learned enough lessons from my own career and from others that I want to share. I look forward to doing so with all of you over the course of the year.