A recent study by Corporate Counsel Women of Color (CCWC) discovered a growing trend in women of color leaving law firms to work as corporate counsels. Titled “The Perspectives of Women of Color Attorneys in Corporate Legal Departments,” the study surveyed more than 1,300 African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American and Native American female corporate attorneys.
A staggering 76.5 percent of women who participated in the study started their careers in law firms before leaving for corporations. Among reasons they cited for switching were feeling that their work was not valued, lack of good mentors, desire for more challenging work and few opportunities for growth.
The survey found that these women had serious doubts as to whether their plight at law firms would improve, largely because so few women of color were partners who could serve as mentors. The majority of partners at law firms are White men, making it easier for White lawyers to bond with superiors.
“If you look at the breakdown of law firms, most of the partners are Caucasian,” says Laurie N. Robinson, CCWC’s founder and CEO (pictured left). “The challenge is how do we build a pipeline of people of color? Everybody at the law firms can’t work at the corporations,” she continued.
Dionne Greene-Punnette, U.S. markets counsel for MasterCard Worldwide, worked for law firms from 1996 to 2001 before going in-house. One firm, she says, had few African-Americans among its 700 employees. She considered herself a high-performing attorney who routinely traveled on business, worked 15-hour days and spent nights in her office to deal with a heavy workload. Yet, she says, she questioned how far she could advance because the firm had few minority attorneys in high-ranking positions.
“It’s harder to believe it’s attainable if you don’t see it,” she says.
“What I think is really interesting is that the women (in the study) didn’t spend a lot of time speaking of their race and gender as barriers,” Robinson says. “They really focused on all of the things they do to overcome these barriers in the workplace—building up their level of expertise and working hard to be successful.”