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While working on my research regarding racial diversity (with a fascinating data set from America’s largest law firms), I came across an interesting article by Monique Payne-Pikus, John Hagan and Robert Nelson about race and retention in law firms.

Whereas entry into a law firm is relatively easy, making it to the partner level is not.

Particularly for women, and the statistics show this clearly. The numbers at for entry-level law firm employees are basically equal between men and women, but then women constitute only about 17% of a firm’s partners.

For ethnic minority members (including African and Hispanic American), the numbers are even lower: about 10% of entering associates are minorities and they make up only 2% of partners. The ratio of minority associates to partner in American law firms is so spectacular that it has been called the “racial paradox” by Sander (2006).

The reason for women lawyers’ limited progress in the legal career track is commonly associated with their divided commitments between work and family.

Yet, the explanation for the underrepresentation of ethnic minorities as partner is more puzzling.

Only just recently, have their lower levels of advancement to partnership relative to entry associate level received attention from scholars and media.

One of the assumptions is that it is due to affirmative action policies: minorities with lower grades might be hired out of law school, which begins a negative self-fueling spiral in their early career because firm partners might be more reluctant to mentor them, in turn contributing to lower performance expectations. This lack of partners’ support – both emotional and knowledge – undermines the subsequent career of these young minority lawyers. Limited partner contact and mentoring is increasingly recognized as the key source of dissatisfaction among minority lawyers as they decide to leave their law firm.

Payne-Pikus, Hagan, and Nelson report some interesting results.

They found that there is a large difference in partner contacts and mentoring for African American and white associates.

Whereas more than half of the white associates in large law firms report joining partners for meals (54.4%), only one-quarter of African American do so (26.7%). Interestingly, more than half of the Hispanic associates (57.1%) do this type of socializing. Regarding job satisfaction, only about one-fourth of white associates (23.0%) plan to leave in the next few years, as opposed to half of African American (50.0%) and Hispanic (53.6%) associates. In conclusion, as for many women, minorities at the entry level in large law firms report that their limited partner contact and mentorship has adverse consequences for their progress in the firm.

If mentoring is the key concern regarding minority progress into top leadership positions, what can be done?

The preliminary analyses of the data I’m currently working on with colleagues Manuel Becerra from Adelaide University (Australia) and Steve Smulowitz  from IESE (Spain) points to the performance implications of racial diversity for law firm.

The greater the number of minority lawyers in the firm, the better the financial performance, as indicated by profit per partner. It is then of mutual benefit for minorities and the partners of law firms to focus not just on recruitment and access of minority lawyers at the entry level, but also – and more importantly – on their progress throughout the organization and into a partner role. Additionally, as minorities get promoted through the hierarchical ladder, the mid-point of middle management is crucial for the formation of informal networks.

Female retention in the workplace is also a business issue. Women represent half of the talent in most industries and women often hold the most outstanding academic records when they graduate from university. It is in the best interest of companies to not only reach this talent pool but retain it.

What can women and minorities do to reach the top? The CEO of a large multinational company in the steel industry shared her experience with me as a double minority: a black female. She made it to the top, and in an industry not particularly favorable for women. Here are some things to learn from her journey:

  1. Find a Mentor – any newcomer increases their chances of success with mentoring. Be proactive searching for help and advice. Look in and around the workplace for role models. Model their behaviors for positive energy and results orientation.


  1. Set Your Own Expectations – Your career aspirations should be something that you craft for yourself and that matter to you. Success is personal by definition. Take your leadership position as a privilege to change the world around you.


  1. Strive for Exceptional Performance. Average women and minorities may not have the same opportunities than average men. Take risks and be open to experimentation.


  1. Be Brave – You need to take risks and make decisions. Women expect to be 100% certain to take a new role or assignment; whereas men are more action oriented even with less perceived chances of success.


  1. Empower Yourself and Others – You can empower yourself by listening to others and bringing their thoughtful ideas into the company discourse. Mentoring others means to help voice their concerns and aspirations.



Experiencing discrimination: Race and retention in America´s Largest law firms. Law and Society Review. 2010, 44, 553-584.

Sander, Richard H. 2004. A systemic analysis of affirmative action in American law schools. 57 Stanford Law Rev. 367-483.

Margarita Mayo

I´m Margarita Mayo. I´ve been a Professor of Leadership and Psychology at IE Business School since 2000. Prior to that I was a Fulbright scholar at Harvard University and professor at Ivey Business School. I feel passionate about scientific dissemination, and I have more than 20 years of international experience teaching courses on soft skills, giving keynote conferences and coaching executives on leadership development and change management. Always eager to help develop the next generation of leaders.

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