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Study: Bias in Legal Profession Persists, But Solutions Available

Washington state women are going to law school in greater numbers but only make up a small percentage of law-firm partners. (MargJohnsonVA/Twenty20)
Washington state women are going to law school in greater numbers but only make up a small percentage of law-firm partners. (MargJohnsonVA/Twenty20)
September 12, 2018

SEATTLE – Women and people of color still face barriers in the legal profession, and a new report looks at how to lower those barriers.

The American Bar Association's You Can't Change What You Can't See found a number of attitudes hold women and people of color back.

For example, more than 80 percent of white men in the profession say they have equal access to assignments that lead to exposure and advancement, but only about half of women of color say they do.

Ann Rosato, president-elect of the Washington State Association for Justice, said this is an issue even in the Evergreen State, where women are entering the profession at high rates but don't stick around.

"The numbers are still in the range of only 20 percent of law firms having female partners, so there's clearly a major fall-off somewhere in the middle in the private sector," Rosato said. "I think it's a problem that definitely exists here."

The ABA, the Minority Corporate Counsel Association and the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California launched the survey in 2016 and received responses from more than 2,800 people.

The ABA has around 400,000 members nationwide. Women make up about 35 percent of active lawyers.

The report also includes three steps for breaking down barriers in the profession.

First, it says law firms should look at their own metric to assess where biases exist. Next, firms should implement bias interrupters – that is, small adjustments, such as limiting referrals to "friends of friends" in the hiring process.

Stephanie Scharf, who chairs the ABA's Commission on Women in the Profession, said step three is perhaps most important: If at first you don't succeed, try again.

"You cannot expect change to occur in a week or a month or maybe even a year or two years," Scharf said. "Change is a process, and you can implement policies and practices that you hope will effect change, but change also comes from a culture."

Rosato agreed a culture shift is needed, adding that more diversity could help law firms better connect with clients as well.

"In my particular practice - I'm a plaintiff attorney - it is not unusual for new clients to call our office and specifically say they want to talk to a female attorney in the office, perhaps, because of the sensitivity of the issues they're calling about," Rosato noted.

The full report is online at

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA