Fighting for Women's Equality

‘Where’s The Lawyer?’ Latinas in the Legal Industry

October 30, 2015 | by

Previous installments of our month-long series on the Latina wage gap have dealt with the myriad barriers to economic security faced by low-wage earners. But work remains as well in arenas of high earners, like the law.

Latinas share of the labor force has nearly doubled over the last 20 years. However, they continue to face a significant wage gap, earning less than Latinos, white women and white men. Contributing to this wage gap is the persistence of occupational segregation: Latina workers, like women workers in general, are disproportionately employed in jobs that pay less, with one in three employed in service occupations. An important step towards closing the wage gap is recognizing and addressing the barriers that Latinas face in entering and remaining in higher wage occupations. We don’t need to look any further than our own backyard – the legal industry.

Women and people of color are underrepresented in the legal profession. Eighty-eight percent of lawyers in the United States are white and 65% are male. The problem begins with a lack of access to a legal education, thanks in large part to the attack on and subsequent decline of affirmative action programs. American Bar Association statistics show that while the percentage of minority law school students more than tripled between 1971 and 1995 from 6 to 20%, the percentage of minorities rose only 3% in the following 15 years. Once in the workplace, the numbers remain dismal for the advancement of minority attorneys, who made up only 7% of partners in the law firms listed in the 2014-2015 National Association for Law Placement (NALP) Directory of Legal Employers.

These difficulties are even more pronounced for women of color where the intersectionality of gender, ethnicity, and race often serves to further bar individuals from the higher levels of legal institutions. Only 2.45% of partners at the firms in the NALP Directory were minority women.

The underrepresentation of Latina lawyers in particular is striking: Latinas constitute 7% of the total United States population, but only 1% of the lawyers in the country. A study conducted by the Hispanic National Bar Association, Few and Far Between: The Reality of Latina Lawyers, sheds light on the unique obstacles Latinas face in forging a legal career, beginning with their entry into the legal profession. Limited economic resources and educational opportunities, in conjunction with few attorney role models, often make it difficult for Latinas to even apply to law school.

Latinas are also often excluded from the informal and formal networking opportunities that are critical for success in the legal profession. This exclusion from the “old boys’ network” not only denies them access to mentors, but also to clients and advancement opportunities. Latinas make up only .6% of partners at the firms in the 2014-2015 NALP Directory, but three times that number work as lower-level associates (less than 2%).

As an attorney interviewed for the San Francisco Bar Association’s 2010 Bottom Line Partnership Task Force Report explained: “I was the General Counsel of a company. People would walk in the office for meetings with the General Counsel and ask me ‘where is the lawyer?’ They would not make eye contact with me and they would ask me for the ‘person in charge.’” Several Latina attorneys interviewed for the “Women of Color in the Legal Profession Research Initiative” study conducted in 2003 by the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women reported that it was assumed that they could speak Spanish and they were sometimes asked about their immigration status, even though they were United States citizens.

Increasing access to the legal profession, which as an industry boasts a below-average gender wage gap, would serve to open up economic opportunities for Latinas and boost their earning power. It is essential that we shine a light on the practices within our own industry; if those most experienced with advocating for justice under the law can’t promote fairness and opportunity, who can?

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