From her office in a curved-glass building in downtown Chicago, Tina Tchen has all the trappings of success: a view, positions in national bar associations and a partnership at one of the country’s most prestigious law firms—Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.
To those who know her, Tchen’s success is no surprise. A graduate of a top law school, she’s worked hard to earn her reputation as a bet-the-company trial lawyer.
What is surprising, though, is that Tchen decided to stick it out at a law firm at all.
According to a new study by the ABA’s Commission on Women in the Profession, few women of color ever get the kinds of equal opportunities that Tchen received to put them on the road to partnership. As a result, most choose to leave their firms rather than stay and fight for equality.
The study, Visible Invisibility: Women of Color in Law Firms, explores the experiences of these women. And what it shows is not pretty.
According to the study, women of color are leaving large law firm practices in droves because they are the victims of an uninterrupted cycle of institutional discrimination.
In some cases, these women say they also are subjected to blatant racism and unwanted critical attention, all of which combine to create an uneven and unwelcoming playing field. The commission plans to release the study at this month’s ABA Annual Meeting in Honolulu.
“The picture is still distressing,” says Diane Yu of New York City, a past chair of the women’s commission who helped spearhead the study during her tenure. “The main thing that jumps out [of this survey] is how strikingly similar what we are hearing in 2005 and 2006 is to what we heard in the 1990s,” says Yu, who also chaired a now-defunct ABA committee that studied a similar issue then.
“We still hold ourselves out as a profession that values [the treatment of others]. But these reports are too frequent to be dismissed or not worth mentioning,” Yu says.
Pamela Roberts, current chair of the Commission on Women in the Profession, says she hopes that publication of the study and all the unpleasant information it reveals about the experiences of women of color will prompt change. “The commission really believes [the study] is a catalyst for removing institutional barriers between women and the full opportunity to serve and succeed in the legal profession,” says Roberts of Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough in Columbia, S.C.
Women of color say race and gender still carry a lot of baggage in the workplace. And nowhere is that baggage more of a burden for them than in large law firms where the good-old-boy network of white male leadership still predominates.
The issue has taken on heightened importance for law firms of late as corporate clients are starting to demand diversity—not just in the composition of their legal teams, but also in entire firms. But many women of color report that law firms in general continue to be unresponsive. Though most law firms are making efforts to diversify through recruiting, it seems few pay attention to what happens once women of color actually start working full time at the firm.