Self-Care for Women Lawyers of Color

The National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being  (“Task Force”) in its report1 “The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change,” took note that an important aspect of well-being among lawyers is diversity and inclusion. In recognizing that organizational belongingness (defined as presence of acceptance, inclusion, respect, and support by others) is associated with well-being, it recommended that all stakeholders prioritize diversity and inclusion, as well as create meaningful mentoring and sponsorship programs. Unfortunately, the lack of diversity and inclusion in our legal profession remains a concern. Specifically, for women lawyers of color, this lack of diversity and inclusivity adds a layer of complexity and stress that makes well-being difficult to achieve.

Many women lawyers of color encounter ongoing bias, discrimination, and harassment that arise from ethnic, racial, and gender differences. For example, previous reports2 by the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession such as the “Visible Invisibility Women of Color in Law Firms Executive Summary,” showed women lawyers of color as reporting high rates of being subjected to demeaning comments or harassment, and being excluded from networking opportunities, mentoring, or desirable work assignments. Additionally, the study indicated that women of color felt the need to overcome stereotypes about their abilities at work and their level of commitment. Many women of color shared “downplaying” or “homogenizing” their gender or ethnic identities at the office, maintaining long work hours, working harder than other colleagues, and experiencing loneliness, isolation, or invisibility. The study also showed that the stress of trying to fit in and experiences of invisibility led to a significant portion of women lawyers of color reconsidering their careers and leaving law firms.

More recently, according to the 2018 ABA Commission on Women in the Profession and Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA)  “You Can’t Change What You Can’t See Executive Summary” report3 on interrupting racial and general bias in the legal profession, women lawyers of color were more likely to report they were held to higher standards than their colleagues. They were also more likely to be mistaken for non-lawyers (i.e., administrators, court personnel, or janitorial staff). As compared with other surveyed groups, they reported the highest levels of bias with respect to equal opportunities to access high-quality assignments, networking opportunities, receive mentoring, and fair compensation. As women, they experienced higher rates of harassment at work compared to men. The Vault/MCCA Law Firm Diversity Survey 2018 Report4 further reflected the general trend of attrition rates for women associates of color in law firms as increasing while the percentage of those in partnerships as remaining low.

From a mental health perspective, the inequalities and injustices within the legal profession, as acknowledged in these reports, create an environment that is both challenging and disheartening for women lawyers of color; one that especially runs counter to well-being. It is worth noting that at the heart of well-being is care for others, care by others, and care for oneself. Self-care is a practice that could mean the difference between thriving and languishing in this context. When we as women lawyers of color engage in self-care, we intentionally hold space for ourselves to promote our vitality, receive support from others, and preserve our sense of self. This has particularly relevancy for women of color; many of whom, culturally, and socially, feel the need to care for others and often find themselves holding the needs of their families and communities above their own. The legal profession, as a helping profession, can deepen this felt responsibility of tending to others. Constantly and regularly caring for others without taking the self into account can easily erode one’s capacity to meet one’s own physical and psychological needs. For women lawyers of color, it can intensify the negative impact of challenging environments.

Self-care can serve as a catalyst for all women lawyers of color to make the change they see fit both in their personal and professional lives. Through self-care, we can express and reaffirm our values and our worth. We state that we matter and we are invaluable. It can also lay the foundation for how our allies, including stakeholders in the profession, could best treat and support us. Self-care can increase our resilience, gives us strength, and allow us to achieve a state of well-being. It can also provide a buffer against, and potentially counteract the effects of incivility, intolerance, and invisibility; in turn, allowing us to be empowered in the process.

Wondering about how self-care can empower you as a woman lawyer of color? Consider the four self-care practices below:

  1. Connect with a socially supportive community. Research informs us that being part of a community where there is a sense of accountability, and where people are encouraged to be there for each other, promotes resilience. This may mean being in contact with caring people who not only value the richness of your ethnic, racial, and gender differences, but with whom you celebrate your culture. It might mean being involved in groups both inside and outside of the profession, or engaging in meaningful activities that allow you to help others and foster your growth. It could mean finding a mentor or sponsor, or becoming one in your workplace.
  2. Take a break, recharge, and rest. Stamina and endurance requires having mental, emotional, physical, social, and spiritual fortitude. Allow yourself time to refresh, recover, and reconnect with activities that bring you joy at home, with your family, and your community. Remember to create a healthy routine that involves a regular meal, bedtime, and exercise plan.
  3. Create and maintain strong boundaries. The demands of the profession may pressure you to take on more clients, projects, or tasks, and increase your involvement in organizations or engage in volunteer work. Recognize that time and energy are finite. Once used or depleted, there is no more to give. Prioritize those aspects of your life that are most important to you such as your family, community, spirituality, or traditions. Recognize for yourself when is enough. Give yourself permission to say no, and to ask others at work or at home for what you need.
  4. Harness your assets, abilities, or resources. Your unique background and diverse talents, qualities, attitudes, or aptitudes can allow you to shine and help you overcome obstacles to personal and professional growth. Allow yourself the space to discover or rediscover these parts of yourself and use them to your advantage. Highlight for yourself how you have excelled in using your assets, abilities, or resources, and generously share your successes with others.

Our thanks to OAAP Attorney Counselor Karen A. Neri, JD, MA-MCFC Candidate, for her contributions to this article.

(Endnotes)

  1. The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change Report:
    https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/images/abanews/ThePathToLawyerWellBeingReportRevFINAL.pdf
  2. Visible Invisibility: Women of Color in Law Firms Executive Summary:
    https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/marketing/women/visibleinvisibility_es.pdf
  3. You Can’t Change What You Can’t See: Interrupting Racial & Gender Bias in the Legal Profession Executive Summary Report:
    https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/women/you-cant-change-what-you-cant-see-print.pdf
  4. Vault/MCCA Law Firm Diversity Survey 2018 Report:
    https://www.mcca.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/2018-Vault-MCCA-Law-Firm-Diversity-Survey-Report.pdf