A Sociologist Says You Need to Be White and Male to Look Like a Lawyer

There are certain unspoken rules of success in corporate America, not least of which is “looking the part,” Tsedale M. Melaku, a Sociologist at The Graduate Center, City University of New York, and author of You Don’t Look Like a Lawyer: Black Women and Systemic Gendered Racism says. Yes, oftentimes you need to be white and male to “look like a lawyer”. 

According to a recent report from the National Association for Law Placement and a recent survey of diversity at 232 law firms by Vault and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, women of color and black women make up 8.57% and 1.73% of all attorneys and continue to be significantly underrepresented. Melaku says law firms are overwhelmingly white and male despite efforts to recruit people of color from prestigious academic institutions

Tsedale M. Melaku raised the question “How can we lean in to a table when we are not even in the room?” in her book. She calls to the fact that white men continue to enjoy both racial and gender privilege in the legal industry while women and people of color need to figure it out on their own how to make a real change.

Melaku conducted in-depth interviews with people of color on how they feel when they are “out of box”.

Here is what she has to tell.

“When a black woman in an immaculately tailored suit walks through a corridor discussing business with a colleague after hours, is stopped by a white male associate (whom she sees daily), and is asked to make copies, the you-don’t-look-like mentality is often to blame.

When enthusiastic associates of color attend training sessions and are told by the facilitator that it is their job to assimilate to firm culture, and to make their white colleagues more comfortable, one might reasonably guess that you-don’t-look-like is responsible.

And when an industry-revered, global, highly profitable firm posts an image of its incoming class of partners — none of whom are black or brown, and only one of whom is a women — you-don’t-look-like is likely, if not certainly, one of the explanations.”

Yes, Melaku says that are law firms that make a commitment to diversity, but oftentimes these commitments are mere marketing tools designed to tick boxes on client questionnaires.

Here is what Elissa, a fifth-year associate said when asked about mentorship and sponsorship opportunities.

“No, [I don’t have a mentor]. A law firm is relationship-driven….You work with partners who choose whether they see something that you are not. As an associate, if the work you do is of a certain caliber, you will advance. But in order to ultimately continue advancing, you need to have a partner and/or senior associates that take a liking to you. And in terms of taking a liking, that’s a very personal choice. You can’t tell a person, “Oh, you should take an interest in that person, or you should take an interest in that person.” You just know that people tend to gravitate to people who are similar to them, and I know I’m different than a lot of the people at the firm.”

Ironically, people of color need to pay additional “taxes” for their inclusion in these social and professional spaces. One of such taxes Melaku names inclusion tax, which is levied in the form of time, money, and mental and emotional energy required to gain entry to and acceptance from traditionally white and male institutional spaces. She also says “stereotypical assumption of incompetence leaves little to no margin for error”.

In short, “you-don’t-look-like mentality” is there and it is left to the people of color to overcome it. But this shouldn’t be so. “The legal profession needs to keep asking itself why black partners are so rare and what needs to change, at both the individual and industry levels,” Melaku says.

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