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News

Prominent Black Women Lawyers Discuss Diversity in Legal Field

By John Murph

July 27, 2020

WBA Panel

Clockwise from top left: Judge Anita Josey-Herring, Sandra Shaw, Hope Goins, Yolanda Hawkins-Bautista, Fatima Goss-Graves, and Sylvia James. 

The death of George Floyd not only sparked a storm of protests against racially motivated police brutality, but it also reignited much-needed discussions about systemic racial disparities in housing, education, and employment. On July 16, the Women’s Bar Association of the District of Columbia (WBA) and the Greater Washington Area Chapter, Women Lawyers Division, of the National Bar Association (GWAC) tackled the issue of diversity in the legal profession during the program “Where Are the Black Women Lawyers in Leadership Positions?” 

Moderated by Yolanda Hawkins-Bautista, former WBA president and associate general counsel at Freddie Mac, the panel included Judge Anita Josey-Herring of D.C. Superior Court; Sylvia F. James, director of diversity and inclusion at Winston & Strawn LLP; Sandra Shaw, vice president of legal affairs and privacy officer at BridgeStreet Global Hospitality; Fatima Goss-Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center; and Hope Goins, staff director of the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security. 

“Over the past several weeks, as racial justice comes to the front of mind for many across our country, we’ve seen companies recommitting and committing to virtues of diversity, with many pledging to hire Black people and other people of color to key positions,” GWAC president Erinn Martin said as she opened the program. 

“However, what we’ve seen in practice with these diversity initiatives in the past is that they have not led to true equity and equal advancement in the workplace, particularly when it comes to Black women lawyers,” added Martin, who also serves as policy counsel at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law. “Implicit bias, tokenism, and salary discrimination among other issues serve as major barriers for the advancement of Black women across the profession.” 

According to the 2019 Report on Diversity in U.S. Law Firms by the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), Black women lawyers account for just 0.75 percent of law firm partners and 2.8 percent of associates. In 2009, the numbers were 0.57 percent and 2.93 percent, respectively. 

 “By contrast, white women account for 21 percent and white men 70 percent,” Hawkins-Bautista said. “NALP started tracking Black women numbers in 2009. And at that time, we were at 0.57 percent. So, you can see in a 10-year span [that] not much has changed.” 

Goss-Graves said she’s been “the first and only [Black woman lawyer] in a lot of rooms,” while James recalled her participation in moot court during law school where the judge focused more on her presentation and tone of voice than her substantive arguments.  

Judge Josey-Herring said what she would love to see happen “is for all us, including women, to work more effectively as a group and for us to be more inclusive. In order for us to do that, we have to have those tough conversations that nobody wants to have.” 

Hawkins-Bautista shared that among her fellow Black women professional friends, there’s an overwhelming exhaustion from discussing diversity issues because the conversations seem endless with very little meaningful progress. That said, she noted that lately the conversations seem different. 

Shaw, for her part, said conversations about diversity at her workplace are “almost nonexistent.” “In some instances, some people didn’t want to discuss it. When I try to broach the subject — naturally, if I’m the only person of color — people will listen to placate me. But obviously [the conversation] is uncomfortable. That’s what it comes down to.”  

At the House of Representatives, Goins said “each member is his or her own HR,” with each committee chair deciding how they want their committee staff structured. “So, my staff has been a minority majority staff for about 15 years. Our racial reconciliation conversations are very, very different because our staff was required to see color . . . to conduct effective oversight, and [we saw] Black people not get advancements in certain executive branch agencies.”  

James said she’s seen conversations about race happening in certain law firms that she previously didn’t think were possible, with terms such as “allyship and “anti-racist” being bandied about. “As a person who has been focused on [diversity and inclusion] for the last 14 years, we’re making 14 years of progress in the last five weeks,” she said of her law firm. “So, I do think there is potential right now for a significant amount of change. Someone asked me a while back whether I think this is a movement or a moment. And I’m not sure if it's going to last long before something else comes along. But while it’s here, I’m going to ride this wave and get as much done as possible.” 

The panelists also discussed ways to overcome being stereotyped as an “angry black woman” when asserting themselves professionally, and the need for more diversity sponsors and champions in the workplace. “I see Black women’s careers stalling after the fifth year because of lack of access to work, lack of colleague feedback, and lack of someone talking about you in a positive way in the room when you’re not there,” James said.  

“I actually don’t think Black women don’t get feedback,” Goss-Graves countered. “What happens is that you don’t get that early feedback. And then the feedback comes in an avalanche after years of not identifying any concerns. And so, it feels like real harm.”

The panelists also explored additional pathways for Black women to excel and ascend in the legal field, including the need for mentors, champions, and allies. “I’m not sure if you can be a true ally if you’re not walking the talk, which is why we are doing a lot of education on what allyship is,” James said. 

During the Q&A session, Shaw said that diverse leadership at the top of law firms and organizations does matter when it comes to initiating effective change. But, as James added, more diverse leaders in middle management are equally needed. 

“What we really need is that middle tier — the ones that more directly impact and interact with the bulk of employees. I’ve found that there can be huge disconnect between what the uppermost leadership says and stands for and what actually happens,” James said.