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Why Women and People of Color in Law Still Hear “You Don’t Look Like a Lawyer”

Tsedale M. Melaku

08/08/2019

There are certain unspoken rules of success in corporate America, not least of which is “looking the part.” That often means tailored suits, a certain range of coiffed hair styles, and other accoutrements or signals of success. In the legal field, a popular refrain directed at women and people of color is “You don’t look like a lawyer.” It’s the idea that the norms of success, ability, and competence are tied to looking a certain way — usually white and male.

As confirmed by a recent report from the National Association for Law Placement and a recent survey of diversity at 232 law firms by Vault and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, women of color and black women specifically continue to be significantly underrepresented, making up 8.57% and 1.73% of all attorneys, respectively. Law firms are overwhelming white and male despite efforts to recruit people of color from prestigious academic institutions. These candidates often go on to find their ambitions stunted by the unwelcoming landscape of corporate America.

The refrain of “You don’t look like a lawyer” inspired me to write a book exploring systemic gendered racism in the legal profession. I started with a question that many underrepresented groups in the U.S. are asking today, particularly women of color: “How can we lean in to a table when we are not even in the room?” Diversity in legal professions has long been a delicate issue — it’s hard and uncomfortable to talk about what real diversity entails. And that calls into focus the fact that white men continue to enjoy both racial and gender privilege in the legal industry. This slows down the ability of organizations to create real change and leaves the burden on women and people of color to figure it out on their own. Although the you-don’t-look-like mentality is one that many marginalized groups experience in elite white institutions and social organizations, I wanted to hear the voices of black women to find out exactly what their struggles are, particularly related to their physical appearance and perceived competence.

Here is some of what I learned through a series of in-depth interviews with black female lawyers in elite law firms:

When a black woman in an immaculately tailored suit walks through a corridor discussing business with a colleague after hours, is stopped by a white male associate (whom she sees daily), and is asked to make copies, the you-don’t-look-like mentality is often to blame.

When enthusiastic associates of color attend training sessions and are told by the facilitator that it is their job to assimilate to firm culture, and to make their white colleagues more comfortable, one might reasonably guess that you-don’t-look-like is responsible.

And when an industry-revered, global, highly profitable firm posts an image of its incoming class of partners — none of whom are black or brown, and only one of whom is a women — you-don’t-look-like is likely, if not certainly, one of the explanations.

Each lawyer I talked to shared stories about a potent stew of obstacles that get in the way of firms’ ability to train, mentor, retain, and promote young professionals of color. And despite many firms’ having made a commitment to diversity, these commitments are often rendered hollow and relegated to being nothing more than marketing tools designed to tick boxes on client questionnaires.

Perhaps one of harshest penalties is that lawyers of color are often prevented from building sponsor relationships with key white male partners. The black women I interviewed showed remarkable bravery, fortitude, and gumption in their efforts to establish a comfortable position in these elite institutions — a challenge that has been described in research. But the task of finding a sponsor was and continues to be challenging. When asked about mentorship and sponsorship opportunities, Elissa, a fifth-year associate I interviewed said:

No, [I don’t have a mentor]. A law firm is relationship-driven….You work with partners who choose whether they see something that you are not. As an associate, if the work you do is of a certain caliber, you will advance. But in order to ultimately continue advancing, you need to have a partner and/or senior associates that take a liking to you. And in terms of taking a liking, that’s a very personal choice. You can’t tell a person, “Oh, you should take an interest in that person, or you should take an interest in that person.” You just know that people tend to gravitate to people who are similar to them, and I know I’m different than a lot of the people at the firm.

The terms of employment for women and professionals of color often include what I call an invisible labor clause. That is, they are required to perform added, unacknowledged, and uncompensated labor and to pay additional “taxes” for their inclusion in these social and professional spaces that would otherwise view these professionals’ inherent differences as obstacles to their career advancement. One of these taxes is what I call an inclusion tax, which is levied in the form of time, money, and mental and emotional energy required to gain entry to and acceptance from traditionally white and male institutional spaces. That can include the hours at the hair salon needed to conform to European standards of beauty and the tailoring of clothing to fit within white norms of professional attire, both of which are costly to women of color. Adding to this cumbersome load is the emotional and mental burden inflicted upon those who are perpetually the only person of color, or woman, or person of a modest economic background in the room.

Next, there is the labor of invisibility. This includes the need to work longer or harder to get noticed and the pressure to be flawless, because the stereotypical assumption of incompetence leaves little to no margin for error. The research of numerous scholars, including David B. Wilkins and G. Mitu GulatiCatherine H. Tinsley and Robin J. Ely, and Heather Sarsons, reveals that women and people of color tend to be significantly penalized for marginal errors, as compared with white men. In Ashleigh Shelby Rosette and Robert Livingston’s study, black women leaders in particular were punished more harshly than their white counterparts for making a mistake. Many of the women I spoke with felt that they were unable to recover from marginal errors that were often deemed fatal to their advancement. That adds up to some very real costs of the you-don’t-look-like phenomenon: receiving less pay for equal hours; doing the work but not receiving the credit; encountering difficulty with breaking into social and professional networks; and dealing with the discomfort of white male colleagues. This discomfort can take the shape of having to navigate different cultural reference points — they may not have shared interests in the same golf courses, timeshares, strip clubs, steakhouses, vineyards, ski resorts, or television shows. Cultural competency goes both ways.

 

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    Gender Equity/Diversity

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