This article will discuss how imposter syndrome and generational trauma affects Black associates at law firms, and how partners and other non-Black attorneys can create a work environment that is psychologically safe for Black associates.
Psychological safety (coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson) in the workplace allows employees to speak up candidly with ideas, ask questions, and even make mistakes without fear of reprisal or adverse repercussions.1 This concept has become even more important during recent stressful times, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the January 6th insurrection, and incidents of police violence.
The majority of law firms are predominantly white institutions, and Black lawyers are underrepresented. Speaking more broadly, as of 2021, only 4.7% of lawyers in the United States are Black, while 13.4% of the United States population is Black.2 As discussed in greater detail below, it is an incredibly unique experience being a Black associate at a law firm. However, the common strategies firms use for developing associates can be tailored to meet the needs of Black associates. Practical tips are offered below. While this article focuses on the unique needs of Black associates, the insights can be helpful for all associates.
Intergenerational Trauma and Psychological Safety
The needs and experiences of Black attorneys are unique. The history of Black people in America, and the Black diaspora globally, contribute to intergenerational trauma that many Black associates likely experience. Trauma is defined as a “disturbing experience that results in fear, helplessness, dissociation, confusion or other disruptive feelings intense enough to have a long-lasting negative effect on a person’s attitudes, behavior and other aspects of functioning.”3 Intergenerational trauma is defined as “a phenomenon in which the descendants of a person who has experienced a terrifying event show adverse emotional and behavioral reactions to the event that are similar to those of the person himself or herself. These reactions vary by generation but often include shame, increased anxiety and guilt, a heightened sense of vulnerability and helplessness, low self-esteem, depression, suicidality, substance abuse, dissociation, hypervigilance, intrusive thoughts, difficulty with relationships and attachment to others, difficulty in regulating aggression, and extreme reactivity to stress. The exact mechanisms of the phenomenon remain unknown but are believed to involve effects on relationship skills, personal behavior, and attitudes and beliefs that affect subsequent generations. The role of parental communication about the event and the nature of family functioning appear to be particularly important in trauma transmission. […]”4
Although not all Black attorneys have similar experiences, it is likely that Black associates, because they are the only Black associate in their office or practice group, or are one of a few, have encountered a person, experience, or behavior that causes the perception that they do not belong and triggers a feeling of intergenerational trauma.
Psychological safety in the workplace allows employees to speak up candidly with ideas, questions, and concerns, and even make mistakes without fear of reprisal or adverse repercussions, which contributes to inclusivity and can improve performance.5 Psychological safety is important for all employees to feel included at work and is especially important for employees who have been historically underrepresented in a particular field or workplace.6 People must feel psychologically safe to have authentic, emotional conversations that are necessary to strengthen relationships among colleagues.
Prioritizing psychological safety in the workplace can help usher a shift from unconscious bias to conscious inclusion.7 Unconscious bias, also known as implicit bias, refers to “attitudes and stereotypes that influence judgment, decision-making, and behavior in ways that are outside of conscious awareness or control.”8 Whereas conscious inclusion means “strategically execute[ing] a practical approach to driving the thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors that allow us to value and leverage differences to achieve superior results.”9
Trauma is not only a cognitive experience, trauma resets the body to interpret the world as a dangerous place—this reset occurs in your brain and nervous system.10 When you experience trauma at work, your brain goes into fight, flight, or freeze mode, and you start releasing stress hormones, like cortisol.11 Your cognitive functioning in the prefrontal cortex slows, and you may experience shortness of breath.12 When your traumatic experience is triggered, you might relive and replay the traumatic experience from the past because your body remembers your trauma.
Black attorneys who have experienced trauma must develop a way to cope with that experience. Often the way to cope with race-based trauma as a Black attorney is to try not to be seen as being Black. Black attorneys may have trauma associated with feeling safe and a sense of belonging in predominantly white spaces. Further, trauma can teach someone that being seen as Black can cause harm to them.
Put simply, the value of psychological safety at work is trust. Psychological safety at work can improve retention, collaboration, and employee wellbeing, while creating a high-performing culture and higher levels of engagement and innovation.13 Without psychological safety, employees are more likely to be less engaged, less likely to share ideas, and greater challenges with employee learning.14 Creating psychological safety is difficult and takes a commitment from all of us. Partners at law firms should foster psychological safety by encouraging curiosity, leading with courage and vulnerability, in addition to providing training, conducting a climate study to monitor and assess the inclusiveness of the work culture, run a diversity and inclusion diagnostic to identify areas of improvement, and review internal processes for mentoring.15
Tips for Supporting the Development of Black Associates
TIP #1: BE SELF-AWARE.
Be self-aware in your mentoring relationship with associates, especially with Black associates. Bear in mind that everyone has a different leadership style and communication style. Rather than communicating in a way that motivates you or has worked for you with other mentees in the past, ask your Black associate mentee how they prefer to be mentored. Ask the Black associate what motivates them and what you can do to make them feel empowered at work.
TIP #2: HOLD ALL ASSOCIATES TO THE SAME EXPECTATIONS AND INVEST IN EVERY ASSOCIATE.
Be cognizant of the expectations that you set for Black associates at your firm and apply those uniformly. The sinkor-swim approach common in big law can result in a dichotomy by which Black associates may be either held to a higher standard of exceptionalism or permitted to fail. Black associates should be able to make the same mistakes that other associates make. Black associates should not have to be exceptional in order to survive. Often, high-performing Black associates viewed as exceptional are tasked with many high-profile cases and numerous leadership roles, which can lead to burnout. On the other hand, sometimes Black associates are underestimated when they fail to meet the mark of exceptionalism and are deterred from practicing in big law.
TIP #3: ALLYSHIP IS A VERB, AND IT REQUIRES STUDY AND SELF-REFLECTION.
Often, in law firms, we put so much emphasis on changing systems to create an inclusive workplace, such as hiring a DEI officer or changing recruiting and hiring practices, that we often neglect the need for individual transformation. After all, systems and structures don’t make decisions, the individuals that are part of those systems or structures do. And we know this to be true, personal transformation is the very foundation for systems to change. Another way of putting it is if we want a more inclusive workplace, we can’t just expect the workplace to change because we added a DEI officer; we have to understand our own biases, prejudices, and limiting beliefs and be the change we want to see in the world. Learn about the racial history of America. Read about whiteness and white fragility. The only way to actively dismantle white supremacy is for each of us to learn our own roles in the matrix of domination. As attorneys, all of us have to interrogate our relationship with justice.
1 Tanya Bovée and Michael Thomas, Psychological Safety in the Workplace, Jackson Lewis (Nov. 2020), https://www.jacksonlewis.com/podcast/psychological-safety-workplace.
2 American Bar Association, Demographics: Growth of the Legal Profession (last visited Feb. 7, 2022), available at https://www.abalegalprofile.com/ demographics/.
3 American Psychology Association, APA Dictionary of Psychology: Trauma (last visited Feb. 7, 2022), available at https://dictionary. apa.org/trauma.
4 American Psychology Association, APA Dictionary of Psychology: Intergenerational Trauma (last visited Feb. 7, 2022), available at https://dictionary.apa.org/intergenerational-trauma.
5 Michael Thomas, Inclusivity and High Performance Begins with Psychological Safety, National Law Review (Oct. 14, 2020), https://www.natlawreview.com/ article/inclusivity-and-high-performance-begins-psychological-safety.
7 Supra n.1.
8 Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Office of Diversity and Inclusion, Community Guide for Addressing Bias: Academic Years 2021-2022 (last visited Feb. 7, 2022), available at https://cdn1.sph.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/2597/2021/11/HSPH_Guide_for_AddressingBias_Accessible_FINALv1-1.pdf.
9 Kristina Gattozzi, What is Conscious Inclusion?, Conscious Inclusion (June 12, 2020), available at https://www.conscious-inclusion.com/2020/06/12/ what-is-conscious-inclusion/.
10 Melinda Briana Epler, Leading With Empathy & Allyship: 8: Understanding Intergenerational Trauma with Michael Thomas (2020), https://podcasts.apple. com/us/podcast/8-understanding-intergenerational-trauma-michael-thomas/id1509326364?i=1000478110123 (last visited Feb. 7, 2022).
11 Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (18th ed. 2014).
13 Supra, n.1.
COURTNEY A. WOODS is an associate at Jackson Lewis, P.C., and is admitted to practice in the state of Maryland and the U.S. District Court of Maryland. Woods earned her J.D. from Howard University School of Law in 2020 and M.Ed. in Education Policy and Management at Harvard University in 2017.