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In 1868, Macon Bolling Allen became the first licensed African American attorney and the first African American to legally practice law in the United States (Smith, 2000). It was not until 1950 that the Supreme Court of the United States declared it unconstitutional to deny African Americans admission to law schools previously reserved for White students only (Sweatt v. Painter, 1950). Institutional barriers continue to hinder African Americans in their attempts to enter the legal profession (Nussbaumer, 2012; Weatherspoon, 2010). In its 2017 report, the National Association for Law Placement (2017) reported that African Americans represent only 4.
28 percent of associates in the United States, a figure that has decreased from 4.66 percent since 2009. Women are 2.42 percent of associates. African Americans account for just 1.8 percent of partners in American law firms.
This considerable underrepresentation in the legal profession is mirrored in other prestigious professions, such as medicine and dentistry, which Nance and Madsen (2014) purport is a reflection of greater societal, educational, and institutional barriers that prevent African Americans from attaining advanced degrees in law.
Scholars propose a number of theories to explain African Americans’ restricted entry into the legal profession, such as the mass incarceration of Black males in the United States and the resulting distrust and hostility toward the legal system, unjust law school admission procedures, racial isolation in law school, and a lack of African American role models working in the field (Nussbaumer, 2012; Weatherspoon, 2010). Conley (2006) concluded that outside of progressive, boutique law firms (e.g., Black law firms, Jewish law firms), large firms do not seem to value diversity beyond what is deemed socially acceptable, noting a collective “metaphorical shrug” from elite firms (p.
843). In acknowledgment of this prevailing indifference to diversity issues in the legal sector, we interviewed African Americans who had beaten the odds and completed the long, arduous journey to become lawyers.
We conducted semistructured interviews to generate discussion about our research and provide a platform for African Africans to reflect on their legal careers and express their voices as experts of their own experiences as racial minorities. Rooted in Hewlin’s (2003, 2009) theoretical framework of facades of conformity and drawing from pilot studies on the concept (see Hewlin, 2009; Stormer & Devine, 2008), we constructed an interview protocol to assess the organizational and personal factors that contribute to experiences of both authentic and inauthentic behaviors for Black lawyers working in US law firms in which the partners and associates were predominantly White males. Our interviews lasted approximately forty-five to sixty minutes each, were done over the phone, were tape-recorded, and then were transcribed.
Consistent with research that addresses the difficulty that Black professionals have in developing close professional relationships as a result of different experiences, interests, and cultural values (Dumas et al., 2013; Garth & Sterling, 2009), our respondents discussed this as a core issue in the law firm context. Developing close professional relationships is particularly critical in a law firm environment because relationships create opportunities to join work teams that can lead to visibility and, importantly, billable hours, which generate revenues for the law firm.
Certain relationships are developed almost seamlessly or innately amongst White attorneys. I see myself almost on the outside or having to work harder just to get into the circle.
When there is a lot of work and everyone is busy, there is not a problem. But it is when there are slow periods when you begin to see how the network works. There are people who are always busy and are kept fed with work. People within my own background, we have a harder time with that, so when it was slow, people within the network get the best deals, and that compounds with time. It is a challenge for us because we have to make an extra effort. . . . [S]ome connections are just natural, and when you don’t have partners who have the same background as yours, then it is difficult to form those connections. . . . [Y]ou have to work double-time to find common ground . . . or you are sunk.
In light of the importance of relationships, the pressure to conform and create facades of conformity is salient.
I don’t believe that a Black person can ever truly be authentic in corporate America. I just don’t believe that.
I have certain behaviors that are literally me, but you won’t ever see them in the workplace because I am afraid of being judged. I have adopted the culture and sort of reflect back to them what they reflect as opposed to me projecting my own image. . . . I think it is kind of a shame because companies are starving for authenticity because that is how they can innovate.
As well, one respondent indicated that he cannot fully be authentic as a result of cultural insensitivity and unawareness: “If you never went to school with Black people, if you’ve never practiced law with Black people, if there’s a dearth of Black attorneys at the law firms you’ve worked at and you’ve never had to report to a Black attorney, there are cultural nuances that you’re so oblivious to. . . . [Y]ou’ve never ever had to confront your own racial ignorance because it seems perfectly normal. And if I say it the way I want to and need to, . . . [i]t’s going to make for a very uncomfortable situation . . . for the rest of the year.”
Is there ever a place for authenticity? We had mixed responses with respect to when participants felt authentic. Authenticity can come from a place of comfort after establishing credibility as an exceptional performer, as one respondent observed: “I had set a foundation of excellence . . . so that was clear. There was never a question about my ability. . . . Once you see that all of your feedback is the same. . . . I have a proven [track record], . . . so now they can begin to see parts of me they haven’t seen. I don’t think any of us have that sigh of relief until you get to that point, but it is hard because some of us never fully get to that point [of establishing one’s credibility] to be authentic . . . then you never get to be authentic.”
We also found that authenticity, when displayed, might hinder one’s career progress. This respondent sought and obtained a position more suitable to her desire to exude authenticity in the workplace: “I try to be true to myself the best I can, but maybe that was the problem. I did not do a good job at playing the game, and in fact it cost me. I believe that is why I did not progress at [the firm] . . . which was very clubish. . . . It is different in my new job. . . . I still say that it is better to be your authentic self because it is already hard enough . . . and you are probably not in the right environment. Black culture is not a secret. . . . I believe people will gravitate to you more if you are authentic.”
Finally, the choice to be authentic can come from a place of “having enough” of feeling scrutinized and singled out as a Black person.
Being Black is a moving target. When I was somewhat younger . . . I was acutely aware of no matter where I went, no matter what I did, what were my achievements, I always knew that everyone was looking at me as the Black guy. Obviously I always knew I was Black, but I knew that other people were looking at me that way. . . . I think through my life . . . probably early on . . . I got to the point where that’s your problem not mine so you can, whatever your reaction to me is, knock yourself out. I’m not going to let that bother me anymore and it’s going to be your problem, not my problem. And that being, if blackness was going to be a problem, it was going to be someone else’s problem, not my problem. So, I would spend a lot of time saying, well thinking, and pursuing that I am a very skilled trial lawyer, and it doesn’t matter who you are on the other end, you’re going to get hell.
Our findings among a general population of workers in the United States show that African Americans engage in inauthentic behavior (i.e., creating facades) more often than workers of different racial backgrounds. This finding confirms and highlights the ongoing sense of duality or “double consciousness” that African Americans have experienced in and outside the workplace for decades (Du Bois, 1904, 1994). Whereas some have been successful to find professions and work contexts that promote and appreciate diverse perspectives and values, as a community, being Black in the workplace comes with unique and salient pressures to conform to dominant norms and values. Our qualitative findings from an initial sample of professionals illustrate that this is particularly the case in the legal profession, in which building relationships with partners and clients is critical to one’s success, as is noted by our interview respondents. Continued qualitative and quantitative research in this arena will help to identify specific trends in how African Americans manage their sense of authenticity in the legal profession.
Given that emotional and psychological strain, along with reduced levels of work engagement and organizational commitment, is associated with suppressing one’s true self in the workplace (e.g., Hewlin, 2009; Hewlin et al., 2016; Hewlin et al., 2017), it is critical that future research focuses on ways that organizations can employ practices that not only promote authenticity but also integrate sensitivity to historical, entrenched barriers to authenticity for African Americans and members of other underrepresented groups. This should be done by paying particular attention to certain industries, such as the legal profession and other client-driven professions, in which conformity and professional relationships are particularly crucial to one’s career success. Specifically, we recommend that organizational practices for promoting authenticity and diversity be a part of a holistic effort to create a learning environment (Argyris & Schin, 1996). A core component of an organizational learning environment is psychological safety, which encourages a shared belief that a team or the organization is safe for interpersonal risk-taking such as expressing divergent values and points of view (Edmondson, 1999). Psychological safety begins with top-down leadership communications and actions, such as formal and informal open discussions where all members are free to share ideas and address issues without fear of recourse. This will likely require leadership training and long-term coaching partnerships with professionals who can help guide the organization to a place of psychological safety and well-being. We emphasize again that sensitivity to the unique experiences of underrepresented groups must be integrated into such efforts. As well noted by Opie and Freeman (2017), encouraging authenticity in the context of organizational norms that are infused with bias will not render authentic self-expression among those who are traditionally the recipients of that bias in their daily interactions at work. Thus, efforts to promote authenticity will necessitate a reevaluation of organizational values that systemically promote bias, and the establishment of new ones that liberate diverse, authentic self-expression among all employees.
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