Dissertation Abstracts

The Role of Race and Gender in the Professional Development of Women Attorneys of Color

Author: Griffin, Stefan H, stefangriffin@alum.northwestern.edu
Department: Sociology
University: Northwestern University, USA
Supervisor: Robert L. Nelson, Ph.D.
Year of completion: 2011
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: legal profession , gender , organizational behavior , race and ethnicity
Areas of Research: Professional Groups , Organization , Racism, Nationalism and Ethnic Relations


Women attorneys of color face continuing professional challenges and increased opportunities. I interviewed 56 women attorneys of color and asked them questions about their law school experiences, demographic or social structural constraints on career options and opportunities, mentor relations, job satisfaction, and work-life balance, and whether they would become a lawyer again. I examine their responses from race, gender, and class, organizational behavior, and symbolic interactionist perspectives. The accounts of my informants generally supported my hypothesis that social structural influences, such as race, gender, and class affect their careers. My informants understood their own agency and accepted the concomitant responsibilities. Informants were generally satisfied with their present legal work, despite the obstacles. I also interviewed two white male partners at a large, national law firm. They articulated the mainstream perspective on diversity, which emphasizes competition, meritocracy, ascribed characteristic neutrality, and a firm belief in a strong work ethic. Women of color informants shared varying degrees of faith in the mainstream perspective, but felt their profession sometimes failed to live up to its professed ideals when it came to supporting their careers. I suggest that institutions work harder to expose women of color to legal education and law practice while young; nurture them throughout their careers; develop mechanisms to help all attorneys meet clear, consistent expectations about work performance and business development; encourage interaction between these women, other attorneys, and clients; recruit and promote qualified attorneys outside of traditional hiring processes; and understand that facially neutral criteria can still pose obstacles to women of color. Corporate and governmental clients can make a business case for greater diversity in law firms and governmental law offices. These clients can demonstrate that changing U.S. demographics in the 21st century are making their stakeholders more diverse and better educated. These stakeholders will expect that professional institutions will reflect the new demographic reality; otherwise, they will demand changes that will affect the political and financial well-being of various institutions. If the law does not become more responsive, clients may decide to shift more business to competing global multidisciplinary professional services firms in a multi-polar world.