Post authored by Dana O’Leary, interviewing Helena Wright
In the often rigorous and stressful world of legal practice, a close network of friends and associates who share your culture and values can be a saving grace. Someone you can lock eyes with in silent understanding during a challenging moment. Or a colleague you can laugh with about a coworker’s unintentionally biased comment. Too often, black women lawyers find themselves one of very few faces like themselves in the workplace. Unfortunately, this isn’t surprising given the current gender and race demographics in the legal field.
In 2018, only 36% of lawyers are women. The racial statistic is even lower: African Americans comprise a mere 5% of lawyers today. Last year black women comprised only .69% of partners and 2.42% of associates in Chicago law firms, which is not much higher than the national averages of .66%. and 2.21%, respectively.
If you don’t encounter many black women lawyers in your daily practice, these numbers explain why.
Despite the bleak statistics, black women lawyers in Chicago consistently find ways to connect with each other both professionally – as resources and for advice – and socially – forming bonds and community networks.
Helena Wright is proof that lawyering as a black woman does not have to be lonely, and the lack of black women in the law does not have to be a barrier to success. Helena has enjoyed a career of many lawyers’ dreams and she isn’t even in her 10th year of practice. She has maintained her identity as a black woman while establishing a successful career as a sharp, confident lawyer.
During her career, Helena has tried several cases to verdict in federal court, negotiated and obtained favorable settlements for her clients, and is now Chief Legal Counsel for the Office of the City Clerk, one of only three elected officials in the City of Chicago. This is a small sampling of the accomplishments highlighting Helena’s time as a lawyer, and she’s really only just gotten started.
When you meet Helena, you can’t help to notice that she’s happy. She enjoys the law and her life – acting as general counsel for an elected office during the work week and enjoying the lakefront or volunteering on the weekend. She has firsthand knowledge of the life of a black woman lawyer, and was happy to share her thoughts and opinions on a few things affecting lawyers like her.
When asked if she sees more black women practicing law than in 2009 when she first became a lawyer, Helena says it’s hard to tell. “I have always surrounded myself with black women attorneys. I have never noticed any fluctuation over the years. Having black women attorneys as mentors and in my circle has always been a constant for me.”
Joining professional associations is a great way to connect with other black women attorneys. Helena has been a member of such groups since the beginning of her legal career: “When I first became a lawyer, I joined the Black Women Lawyers’ Association of Greater Chicago. Attending BWLA events was a great way for me to meet other attorneys and learn and talk about issues that affect us.”
Unsurprisingly, Helena’s positive experiences in the law center around fellowship. For her, one of the positive aspects of being a black woman in the law “involves how black women attorneys are so willing to help one another advance or at least stay on their career path. We tend to look out for each other, even through personality conflicts.”
However, daily life as a lawyer is not always full of positive experiences, especially when facing the double whammy of both racial and gender biases and stereotypes. Helena’s struggles include “not having my legal counsel or advice accepted as valid or correct unless it is co-signed by a white male attorney. It can be disheartening and frustrating. My advice is to not show your discomfort and not waiver from your proper legal counsel when challenged.”
Wearing a poker face and doing your job even in frustrating situations is key for black women, who are repeatedly stereotyped as sassy or defensive. Lawyers must be stern and confident by virtue of their profession, but when black women exude these traits they are stereotyped into the angry black woman trope, instead of being viewed as confident professionals like their peers would in similar situations.
Negative stereotypes of black women lawyers are unfortunately common, but Helena doesn’t let any of them affect her. She says “I have never been concerned with those negative stereotypes for some reason. I guess because those are not my personality types and my main focus has always been my client and valid legal arguments.”
While Helena is confident in herself, negative stereotypes lead other black women lawyers to “code switch,” be agreeable and hold back their opinions. Code-switching involves embracing the dominant culture or vernacular among your co-workers, and switching back to your authentic self around family and friends.
Code-switching can include changing the way you talk, dress, or wear your hair. Black women, for example, have a curly, kinky hair texture. At work and in for interviews, black women lawyers code switch by wearing their hair straight instead of in its natural kinky texture. This is because natural hair is stereotyped as unprofessional – straight hair is the accepted norm and therefore the safest style choice.
Does Helena think natural hair bias affects career advancement? “Oh God yes.”
Hair bias is just one of the many stereotypes black women in the law have to navigate throughout their careers. Lawyering as a black woman means confronting these racial and gender obstacles while still remaining diligent and poised.
In her parting words, Helena offered some tips on lawyering as a black woman: “Be strong. Be willing to learn. Work Hard. And remember you belong and are you voice is important.”
I will add that black women lawyers should always remember to stay true to themselves.
As Loretta Lynch, the first black woman Attorney General said, “People will look at you and they’ll try to define you… but they only do that if you let them, so I always viewed my job as defining myself.”
Title was inspired by Sisters in Law: Black Women Lawyers’ Struggle for Advancement, C. Pratt, 2012 MICH. ST. L. REV. 1777.
 American Bar Association, ABA National Lawyer Population Survey: 10-Year Trend in Lawyer Demographics Year 2018 (2018), available at https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/market_research/National_Lawyer_Population_Demographics_2008-2018.pdf.
 National Association for Law Placement, 2017 Report on Diversity In U.S. Law Firms, Table 5; Table 6, available at https://www.nalp.org/uploads/2017NALPReportonDiversityinUSLawFirms.pdf.
 Maura Cheeks, How Black Women Describe Navigating Race and Gender in the Workplace, Harv. Bus. Rev. (March 2018), available at https://hbr.org/2018/03/how-black-women-describe-navigating-race-and-gender-in-the-workplace.
 Alana Abramson, Loretta Lynch on the Values that Led to Her Success, Fortune Magazine (Sept. 2017), available at http://fortune.com/2017/09/07/loretta-lynch-family-values-success-firsts/.
About the Author:
Dana O’Leary is a member of the CBA’s @theBar Steering Committee. She is a municipal attorney with the City of Chicago Office of the City Clerk. Her career in government law began in law school as a law clerk at the Uniform Law Commission. She earned her B.A. in Political Science from DePaul University and her J.D. from DePaul College of Law.