How Marketers Can Better Support Inclusion for Women Lawyers of Color — Today
A new in-depth report from the American Bar Association, Left Out and Left Behind: The Hurdles, Hassles and Heartaches of Achieving Long-Term Legal Careers for Women of Color, draws on data and interviews to tell the story of what life is like for women lawyers of color. The report, authored by social scientist Destiny Peery, past ABA president Paulette Brown and Chicago attorney Eileen Letts, demonstrates why, despite increased efforts by firms and the profession generally, to improve diversity and inclusion, women of color continue to face barriers to advancement and are much more likely than white women counterparts to leave the profession.
This report is essential reading for any law leader who is serious about making true substantive changes that will improve the retention and advancement of women of color — particularly those leaders whose firms are posting “Black Lives Matter” messages in internal communications and on social media channels. Becoming an antiracist law firm does not end with a slogan or “messaging” — it requires an honest examination of formal and informal policies and practices, and a reckoning with the impact of those policies on lawyers of color. Then it’s time to reimagine how your firm runs to make sure opportunities are fairly distributed.
While it’s very important to hear and sit with the stories individual lawyers share from their experience of implicit and explicit bias, if I know my audience of driven, task-oriented marketers and communicators, you will be skipping to the end, where the report recommends next steps for firms that want to take action. Below I outline those general recommendations, and then consider the role of the marketing department in helping to make them a reality.
Adopt Best Practices for Reducing Biases in Decision-Making. “[P]revious research that has shown that high levels of subjectivity in promotion standards, selection for assignments, compensation decisions, and performance appraisals are often colored by stereotypes and serve as institutional and structural barriers to the advancement of women of color and other underrepresented attorneys.”
What Marketers Can Do: How does your department determine which partners receive marketing and communications support as they work to build their business? Is there a way to distribute those resources — help with individual lawyers’ social media channels, assistance writing and placing thought leadership, nominations for awards and key boards of directors — more fairly to elevate your firm’s diverse attorneys? How can you help advise up-and-coming partners on which opportunities will be the best use of their limited time and make the biggest impact on their business development?
Improve Access to Effective, Engaged Mentors and Sponsors. “[W]omen of color are especially likely to report that they lack access to mentors or sponsors who are well-connected and have power and influence to both clue them into important dynamics of the workplace and effectively advocate for them.”
What Marketers Can Do: Marketers have a great opportunity to help create mentorship and sponsorship relationships through the business development and proposal-writing process. By now, most rainmakers and practice leaders understand that business clients demand to be served by diverse teams. So they’re being thoughtful about including diverse attorneys in pitch decks and other materials. You can help move that inclusion to the next level by adding a follow-up communication step to your BD process in which all named/pictured team members de-brief and offer feedback. This is a simple way to build a platform upon which younger and diverse attorneys can demonstrate their value in front of the senior partners who can shape their career opportunities. In addition, you can use channels like the internal firm newsletter to educate more senior partners on how to effectively advocate for diverse attorneys — and, in doing so, help the firm stand out as a leader on an issue that matters very much to clients.
Take an Intersectional Approach to Addressing Diversity and Gender. “[B]lindness to or ignorance of the ways that gender and race (as well as other social identities) can interact to create distinct experiences” has so far limited what firms have been able to achieve. Firms must acknowledge that, while they are still disadvantaged, white women’s careers develop differently because of their access to privilege. They navigate networking differently, are viewed differently by colleagues, clients, and judges, and receive distinct treatment when it comes to work distribution and performance evaluation.
What Marketers Can Do: Take a look at how you use words like “diversity,” “equity,” and “inclusion” in internal and external firm communications. Do you grapple with intersectionality — that is, the way that experiences of race and gender (and class and sexuality and ability) intersect for your attorneys — in your messaging? Are there ways that your “diversity” initiatives and communications erase the experience of women who are not white? How could you make changes to address this issue?
“[O]ur participants mentioned again and again the myriad ways that the culture of the legal profession interfered with their abilities to succeed, to feel valued, and sometimes to persist in the legal profession.”
What Marketers Can Do. So much! 1) Take a look at your firm’s (pre-Covid, in-person) events. Where are they typically held? Do you always choose locations and activities that are most comfortable for wealthy white men? How might you change things up? 2) Does your firm have a written editorial style guide? If so, does it include a section on inclusive language so that everyone knows how to use language in the most inclusive ways possible? 3) If your intended audience for your internal firm communications is “everyone,” are you sure your language and framing actually accomplish that goal, or are you unintentionally treating a white reader as the default? 4) What other unexamined policies, practices, habits and conventions may implicitly communicate to diverse partners that they don’t fully belong? Learning how to spot potential for “othering” and exclusion in communications and other marketing activities is an important skill your department needs to teach its junior members and encourage them to practice.
True change that makes law firms into more equitable and inclusive workplaces for all lawyers must happen on both the systemic and individual levels. While many of the most sweeping and necessary changes are out of the hands of junior and senior legal marketers, there are plenty of things we can do within the scope of our influence that will make a difference. And the time to start is now.