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Why Can’t Law Firms Retain Their Female and Minority Lawyers? Because Conformity is Exhausting.

A common topic of conversation among my female professional friends is how much of our work lives are controlled by gender and racial stereotypes.  The most common one is being told to smile.  I can’t tell you how many times in my working life that a male partner or associate has walked into my office while I was deep in thought working on a brief or an important client memo and looked at me and said, “is there something wrong?” or “are you ok?” When I say that everything is fine, they often say something like, “you’re not smiling, you look upset about something.”  I have never heard anyone say this to a male attorney.

Add racial stereotypes to the mix and there are more standards to be considered beyond the failure to smile enough.  For instance an article on BESE.com (a multicultural digital and social media and news platform), entitled “Black Women Aren’t Allowed to be Introverted,” recently discussed this problem.  The author lamented the fact that as a Black woman she was expected to be funny, entertaining and sassy – just like the Black female characters people see in TV and movies.  Her own introverted personality hurt her in the workplace, and managers were critical of her failure to speak more.  Conversely, Asian women in the media are often shown to be submissive worker bees.  We are rarely portrayed as outspoken, assertive, or with any other quality one would assume is required to take on a leadership role.

I presume that the vast majority of women who choose the practice of law are inherently ambitious overachievers.  If your goal is to work in a law firm, you probably don’t see yourself as never being able to move past the rank of an associate.  You likely see yourself making equity partner someday.  But the road to that is paved with racial and gendered expectations – that you must either conform to or successfully counteract in order to succeed.   This requires a lot of mental gymnastics, strategy and role playing.  For instance, in my personal life I am the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants.  I am the wife of a Vietnamese immigrant.  I am a mother to a son who happens to be the only grandson on both sides of the family.  So much of this background shapes who I am and has resulted in me being assertive, opinionated, and slightly judgmental in nature.  Who I am is fairly stereotypical within my cultural community, but it is not stereotypical from a Western viewpoint.   

When I take the traits I have acquired from my cultural background into the workplace people are often surprised.  They don’t expect that I would disagree with them or be so openly unsympathetic about some issues.  They don’t expect that I would speak up at meetings or sound persuasive when I do speak up.  For instance, back at a previous firm I worked at I was in a meeting with several attorneys and staff members.  We were asked our thoughts on a software platform the firm was considering purchasing.  I voiced my opinion about why the firm should purchase the software platform.  When a male partner in the room commented on how convincing the staff would never happen, I quickly countered with multiple reasons how and why to get them onboard.  When the meeting concluded one of the staff members at the meeting came up to me and said they were surprised at how much I spoke up.  They also said they were surprised at how persuasive I sounded.  My response.  “I’m an attorney. My job requires me to be persuasive.  If I can’t convince my own co-workers about something as small as this, how am I supposed to convince a judge or a jury to rule in my favor.” The staff member laughed and said that she forgot about that.

Moments like that have happened my whole career.  Opposing counsel acts surprised when I stand my ground.  People assume I wouldn’t be comfortable doing X or that I would prefer doing Y – based in part on my race and gender.  My words and my actions reflect an active attempt to dismantle the quiet Asian worker bee stereotype - all while still trying to fit into parts of stereotype that may work in my favor (likeable, mostly relatable, and hard working).

In contrast white male attorneys can be anything they want to be.  It does not matter if they are generally unlikeable.  It does not matter if they never speak up at a meeting or never show up to firm events.  It does not matter if they leave early all the time or work from home because they have kid duty. It does not matter if they don’t smile or even say hello to their colleagues.   I have heard these criticisms about female attorneys, even though I have more than one male partner in my career that exhibited one or all of these issues with little repercussion.  So why do some female and minority lawyers leave the practice of law? I suspect it is because they are tired of playing this game.  They are tired of having to size up every person they meet (partner, client, judge, etc.) and make a split second decision about what the person standing across from them expects them to be.  

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