It’s no big secret that most lawyers are unsatisfied with their careers. Studies show that lawyers experience depression at higher rates than the general population and have higher rates of alcohol and substance abuse. There are even some studies that suggest that “associate attorney” is the unhappiest job in America.
As a legal professional, those statistics alone are upsetting. What’s even more concerning is that, as a black woman and an attorney, I know those statistics only address the tip of the iceberg for us. How do you describe what it feels like to be a double minority, an African American and a woman, in one of the most unhappy professions out there? Well, I thought I’d give it a try.
When I thought about this issue, I went looking for research to confirm my feelings about the experiences of black women in the legal profession. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t find anything that painted the full picture.
So I’m just going to tell you what I know for sure like Oprah.
Most black women got into the legal profession for two reasons – to serve our communities and to get rich at the same damn time. That was the vision. That was the legal dream.
U.S. history has taught black women that the most effective tool to fight systematic racism and oppression is the law. Through landmark legal victories like Brown vs. Board of Education, Loving vs. Virginia, and the Civil Rights Act of 1965, black people have been able to use the law to slowly gain access to the rights and privileges guaranteed to all men under our Constitution. The legal system gives black people a way to hold America accountable for its declaration in 1776 that:
[w]e hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness…
So if you were an ambitious, young, black girl with good grades, leadership skills, and the memory of at least one Eyes on the Prize episode, then the idea of becoming a lawyer certainly crossed your mind. What could be better than using your skills to uplift your community and become part of the next generation of civil rights heroes?
Then, in addition to helping your community, popular culture tells us that lawyers make a lot of money. In terms of income, lawyers seem to be right up there with doctors, dentists, and even some athletes and stars. You never see the image of a lawyer struggling to make ends meet on TV. You only see them outwitting their opponents in Armani suits. I mean, Claire Huxtable lived in a brownstone in Brooklyn with a doctor husband and 5 kids, and we all know how much those brownstones cost.
As black women, we just wanted that picture – the ability to uplift our communities, make great money, marry the doctor, and buy the brownstone. Law school made those ideas seem like attainable dreams. So we went and kicked ass (per usual). We became the most educated people in America.
Unfortunately, more education does not equate to more money or more freedom. Instead, what we learned is that the legal profession itself is the next civil rights issue that needs to be tackled.
Here are some real numbers for you.
Black women, on average work more hours, than white women and white men. However, black women with advanced degrees (i.e., lawyers, doctors, accountants, etc.) make almost $7 per hour less than white men with a bachelors degree. In fact, black women with advanced degrees only make about $11 more per hour than white men with high school diplomas. By comparison, white men with advanced degrees make almost $28 more per hour than white men with high school diplomas. That’s more than double.
With pay rates like that, it makes sense for white men to take out student loans and go to law school. They are virtually guaranteed a return on their investment. With black women, the argument is not so clear especially when you aren’t making much more than a high school student but are saddled with 100K or more in student loan debt.
The reasons black women in the legal profession make less are based in the same racist and sexism systems that support the pay gaps in every profession. What makes the attorney pay gap particularly insidious is that the legal industry is supposed to be the mechanism by which you can fight such disparity.
On average minority students end up in lower-ranked law schools even though we pay more than white students to attend those schools. If you don’t attend the right law school, several firms and organizations won’t even bring you in for an interview regardless of how well you performed in those school.
Then, because 75% of all current black law firm partners went to the top 12 law schools, all of these facts and figures mean that to get the salaries we deserve, the pool of available law schools for black women is 12. You can push the number to 20 and maybe even 25, but your options certainly don’t amount to the 237 law school out there.
Then there is the issue of the justice gap. Because minority lawyers make less and have more debt, they cannot afford to help the people they likely went to law school to serve.
My favorite documentary on this point is Gideon’s Army. The movie follows three public defenders (all African-American) as they work 15-16 hours/day, struggle with overwhelming caseloads, and attempt to find enough money to pay for the gas they need to get to the courthouse every day. One lawyer even ended up having to quit her job as a public defender because she couldn’t help her clients and feed herself and her child at the same time.
The worst part of all of this is that there are no spaces for black women in the law to talk about these issues. There is only shame and disappointment.
In Gideon’s Army, the film makers rightfully portray the public defenders as noble litigators fighting the good fight. However, on the ground within the legal profession, there is the unspoken belief that if you aren’t making a lot of money, you’re not a good lawyer. Because the majority of black women fall into that camp, we begin to question ourselves and our skills.
When you have worked so hard for something that is supposed to help you and your entire community, its hard to admit that you are burnt out, overwhelmed, overworked, and underpaid. It’s also demoralizing to realize that because of your student loans, you can barely make ends meet and that the promise of change you thought you could create seems more out of reach than you ever could imagine.
There also is no outlet for you to demand livable wages for all lawyers, to organize against law schools that charge exorbitant tuition rates no matter their ranking, or to call out the fact that you are working twice as hard for a third of the pay. Because to do that would mean admitting that you didn’t go to the best law schools, and therefore, maybe, just maybe, you really aren’t smart enough or good enough to be a lawyer.
At least that’s what it feels like until you realize that none of it is true. Those feelings of shame are what’s keeping the legal profession rolling along unchecked and unquestioned. Those feelings make it okay for law firm partners to say that they simply “can’t find a qualified lawyer of color” to fill a position and feel a moral sense of superiority about it. I mean they looked, right? They had a career fair at Howard Law School, didn’t they?
Here’s what I know – black women are smarter and stronger than the world will ever really know. But to garner the salaries we deserve, we have to release the shame we feel and break free from the traditional legal model. It’s just not serving us, and it’s not our loss. It’s theirs. We can and should do things differently so that we can begin working in careers and positions that value our talents and pay us what we deserve.
What do you think about the state of black women in the legal profession? I’d love to hear your thought? Let me know your perspective in the comments below.