Do Your Lawyers Feel Comfortable Bringing Their Whole Selves to Work?

October 28, 2019

Scholar and Sociologist Tsedale M. Melaku writes in a recent issue of the Harvard Business Review that attorneys who are women and/or people of color continue to hear, in explicit and implicit ways, the message that they “don’t look like a lawyer.”

Melaku’s research and recent book, You Don’t Look Like a Lawyer: Black Women and Systemic Gendered Racism, draw on in-depth interviews with black women lawyers to capture their common experience of being the only nonwhite woman in the room.

These women talk of the strain and cost they pay to conform to European standards of beauty in terms of dress and hairstyles, the difficulty of forming sponsorship relationships with more senior white male partners, the pain of being mistaken for secretaries instead of attorneys and the “pressure to be flawless, because the stereotypical assumption of incompetence leaves little to no margin for error.” Melaku calls these penalties both “invisible labor” and the “labor of being invisible” — the extra work nonwhite women must do to prove they belong at the firms who hired them.

Obviously, these painful experiences highlight a host of issues in law and American culture generally that have created the systemic racism impacting the careers of black and brown lawyers. While recruiting has improved, retention and advancement continue to fail miserably, with black women making up just 1.73% of all attorneys.

Communications and marketing share some of the blame for reinforcing stereotypes about who belongs. They also present opportunities to drive change:

  • Devote PR resources to these attorneys. We’ve written in this space about the critical role PR and media strategy can play in spotlighting the work of diverse attorneys, helping them raise their profile and build their business.

  • Check your tone. As we noted in our recent National Law Review piece, there is a right way and a wrong way to talk about diversity.

  • Check your visuals. Turn a critical eye on the images on your website and other marketing materials, especially photography. Are the attorney head shots on your website photographed with lighting and backgrounds that work for multiple skin tones? Does the art and imagery on your website and in your marketing collateral include different visual contexts (i.e. not just golf courses and rowing teams)? True inclusiveness is not just showing women, faces of color, etc., but doing so in a natural, authentic way.

  • Recognize the bias inherent in traditional forms of networking. As Melaku says, attorneys from other backgrounds may not share white attorneys’ interests in the same “golf courses, timeshares, strip clubs, steakhouses, vineyards, ski resorts, or television shows.” That makes it harder to connect. Sophisticated internal and external communications can help combat this effect and create visibility for alternate paths to forming mentor relationships and making contact with clients.

  • Assess your policies and how you talk about them. Do all your attorneys (and all the people who work at your firm, for that matter) feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work, including expressions of their culture and identity that may fall outside the white mainstream? How do you know? And, if not, how can you change the way you talk about expectations to invite everyone to the table?

Used thoughtfully, communications strategy can be a powerful tool in your firm’s efforts to retain and advance more women and people of color in law.