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Minority women abandon big law firms due to bias

University Of Chicago : 22 June, 2007  (Technical Article)
An American Indian attorney is asked where she keeps her tomahawk. White male partners look past a black lawyer, assuming she is clerical staff. An Asian attorney is called a 'dragon lady' when she asserts herself.
An American Bar Association study that says those real-life experiences, along with more subtle forms of discrimination, are prompting growing numbers of minority women to abandon the nation's biggest law firms.

'We're not even talking about trying to get up through a glass ceiling; we're trying to stay above ground,' said Paulette Brown, co-chairwoman of the group that produced the study, released Friday at the bar association's annual convention.

The report, 'Visible Invisibility: Women of Color in Law Firms,' was conducted by the bar association with the help of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. Questionnaires were sent to about 1,300 attorneys of both sexes, with 920 responding.

Law firms exclude minority women from golf outings, after-hours drinks and other networking events, the study says. Partners neglect the women of color they are supposed to help mentor.

In some cases, partners and senior lawyers disregard minority women less because of outright bigotry than because they have less in common with them and thus do not connect well with them, the study found.

Firms routinely hand minority women inferior assignments, such as reviewing documents or writing briefs, that provide little opportunity to meet clients, the study says.

That means women of color are not able to cultivate business relationships and develop the 'billable hours' that are the basis of career advancement within a firm.

Among the findings:

- Forty-four percent of women of color said they were denied desirable assignments, versus 2 percent of white men.

- Forty-three percent said they had limited access to client development opportunities, versus 3 percent of white men.

- Nearly two-thirds said they were excluded from informal and formal networking opportunities, versus 4 percent of white men.

Such discrimination largely goes unchecked at law firms, forcing women to quit to avoid it, Brown said.

The study cited 2005 data from the National Association of Law Placement showing 81 percent of minority female associates quit within five years of being hired. That figure was up from 75 percent in the late 1990s.

Michael Greco, the bar association president, said managing partners at law firms, mostly white men, need to dedicate themselves to reform.

'This is intolerable,' Greco told reporters. 'It stings the conscience of our profession.'
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