Attorney Staci Yandle of O’Fallon, Ill., fell in love with personal injury law 25 years ago. Along the way, she’s experienced highs and lows. Beyond fighting for justice on clients’ behalf, Yandle has faced another kind of adversity as a trial lawyer: being an African-American woman in a historically white-male-dominated profession.
Women account for less than a third of working lawyers, and the percentage of racial and ethnic minority attorneys is in the single digits.1 Even more rarified are minority women lawyers. For attorneys like Yandle, the profession can seem rather lonely.
Trial Associate Editor Matthew Malamud spoke with Yandle about the challenges of being a minority woman trial lawyer and the value of networking with other women and minority attorneys. Yandle also shared her thoughts on the importance of the plaintiff bar reflecting the community it represents.
Q: What has it been like to be a woman of color working in a historically white-male-dominated profession? What about in the microcosm of the law firm?
A: It has had its challenges. Yes, it is a male-dominated profession. And yes, I would love to go into a courtroom and see more women trial lawyers and more African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American, or Native American trial lawyers, but I don’t. But it’s also true that I don’t get caught up on that; I just try to do the best job I can for my clients.
I wish there were more women and minorities involved in plaintiff work because the work we do is so important to the community.
As for law firms, they tend to follow a traditional structure that’s been in place a long time that doesn’t favor women and minorities. There are still issues of equal compensation and opportunities, for example. Also, many women struggle with work-life balance issues. I’m sure there are firms out there that are cognizant of that, but, generally speaking, women aren’t afforded a whole lot of flexibility.
The excuse you’d hear is that’s just the way things are. I worked in that structure for almost 20 years, learning a lot and eventually making partner. It was a great opportunity, but I eventually felt it was time to do my own thing.
Q: You opened your own firm in 2007. How has that put things in perspective?
A: I realized that although many things are handled certain ways in law firms generally, that doesn’t always work for me. I felt empowered to structure my practice the way I wanted and not necessarily be guided by the traditional structure of a law firm. For instance, many of the women in my firm have children, and I like to think that I’m a bit more flexible when it comes to their work-life balance needs.
Owning my own firm has been liberating. It is my baby. Even on bad days it still feels good because it is totally within my control and it’s all on me. I would have been more concerned if I was starting from the beginning, but it wasn’t like I was starting from scratch. I had already established a reputation, and I knew I would start my firm with an established caseload and clientele.
Q: You say it’s been a challenge being a woman of color in the legal profession, but has it been a rough road?
A: When you come into this world as an African-American female, you’ve already walked that road for a long time before becoming a lawyer. Life in general as a black female is challenging and rough. I already had the coping mechanisms when I entered the profession. To prove yourself as an African-American professional, you are always going to have to work harder and be smarter—because that’s the way things are in our society. We are taught that from childhood.
Q: A 2006 report2 by the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession showed that an inordinate number of minority women lawyers face both gender and race discrimination. Nearly two-thirds of women of color responding to a survey said they had been excluded from networking opportunities, half said they had experienced demeaning comments or harassment, 44 percent were denied desirable assignments, and a third received unfair performance evaluations. Has this been your experience?
A: Yes and no.
It was more so when I first started practicing law. There were situations where people called the firm looking for representation and I was the attorney they were to meet with initially. On one occasion an individual told me right to my face—I guess I appreciated them being up front about it—that if I was going to be the lawyer working on their case, they weren’t interested in working with the firm because, frankly, they weren’t comfortable with a black attorney. I’ve had other situations where clients didn’t say that to me directly, but they certainly let my superiors know that they didn’t feel comfortable with me being the attorney assigned to their file.
I’ve also been treated differently because of my race or my gender by other professionals. Throughout my career, I’ve been perceived differently by colleagues and judges. When they see a black woman coming, I don’t think they expect me to be as prepared or capable. For example, there have been times when I have met or spoken with opposing counsel for the first time and I got lectured on the law. They assume I’m not as knowledgeable. It’s obvious and condescending, and I know I probably wouldn’t have to deal with that if I was a white man.
Q: How did you deal with those situations?
A: The good news is that my firm supported me in the situations where I was told that the clients weren’t comfortable with me working on their cases. They told the potential client: “She’s the one we assigned to the file because she’s competent and qualified, and if you’re saying you don’t want her working on your file, we’re going to need you to take your file elsewhere.” It was important that my firm supported me and stood up for me in those situations.
In situations where I am treated differently by opposing counsel or even by judges, I just focus on my job, try to make sure that I am always prepared, and hope the quality of my representation will overcome that. I also see it as an opportunity to take advantage of those low expectations.
Q: How has membership in groups like AAJ’s Minority Caucus and Women Trial Lawyers Caucus helped your career?
A: Meeting other minority and female trial lawyers and having the opportunity to work with them on cases has been amazing and rewarding! I love being able to pick up the phone and call other plaintiff attorneys to vent or run something past them, to pick their brains—we’re really giving and supportive of each other. There’s a lot of information that we share, and we do business together. I have established some lifelong friendships, and I enjoy working collaboratively with other people.
I’ve been blessed to have other lawyers who’ve been willing to assume the role of mentor for me, and that has been invaluable.
For example, I’ve learned a lot about trial advocacy skills, the importance of relationships, how to market myself and generate business, how to be more active and visible in my community, and how to educate the community about civil justice.
My interest in being more active in the caucuses began more than a dozen years ago when I attended my first annual Women’s Lobby Day in Washington, D.C. It pretty much jump-started my interest in being more active and really embracing AAJ’s mission. It was awesome, and I got to see the important legislative work AAJ does.
It also gave me an opportunity to see how I can contribute to the organization and the plaintiff bar, and enhance my practice for the benefit of my clients.
Q: Would you say that your career would not have been as rewarding if you didn’t have that support?
A: It has definitely made a difference, because I don’t feel like I’m out here on an island all by myself. I know there are others like me, and I know that there are other people I can rely on for support and that I can also offer support.
Q: In 2002, we asked Michael Rosier, then president of the National Bar Association, what he thought was the greatest challenge facing African-American lawyers. Essentially, he said it is the negative perception in the legal community that African-American lawyers are limited in their capacity—that they are good criminal lawyers and domestic relations lawyers and that’s it—and that many owe their achievement to affirmative action.3 Do you think Rosier’s response holds true today?
A: Unfortunately, yes. I’m not really sure the profession has changed a lot for African-American lawyers since I entered it in 1987, which is concerning to me. So it definitely hasn’t changed since 2002. Percentage-wise, I don’t really see any more minority trial lawyers, including Asian-American lawyers, Native American lawyers, and lawyers with disabilities, than I did 25 years ago.
I think the progression may be a little better for women, although not by much. In southern Illinois and metropolitan St. Louis where I primarily practice, I’m one of only a handful of practicing female trial lawyers. I think there are only two or three African-American trial lawyers in southern Illinois.
The only way to change that situation is for plaintiff firms to make a more concerted effort to reach out to minorities by giving them the opportunity to do trial work and to be trial lawyers so they can, in turn, lead by example. The same goes for women.
That said, I recognize that opportunities for attorneys to get into plaintiff firms are more limited than those to get into defense firms, which are larger and recruit more.
Q: Is the plaintiff bar as diverse as it should be?
A: No. It can always be more diverse, whether you are talking about ethnic, gender, or sexual orientation diversity. But I also think that is the case for any institution, not just the plaintiff bar.
Q: How does the profession need to become more representative?
A: The plaintiff bar needs to be more embracing of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. When I first started practicing, for a while I did not feel comfortable acknowledging my sexual orientation because I didn’t want it to cost me my job. I wanted to be judged on my merit and my merit alone. Many members of the LGBT community still have that fear. We are a traditional profession that is conservative in many ways.
Also, the plaintiff bar needs to be more of an open tent and more fully embrace lawyers with physical disabilities. I consider that a diversity need as well.
Q: Why is diversity among lawyers in the plaintiff bar important, and do you think clients notice the lack of diversity?
A: Generally speaking, diversity is important in all aspects of life, both professionally and personally. People from diverse backgrounds bring different life experiences and points of view. Our clients, regardless of why they’re coming to us, come from diverse backgrounds. Certainly, having more attorneys who reflect that diversity enhances the attorney-client relationship. It also improves trial lawyers’ reputation in the community.
When clients see a lack of diversity, they may think minority lawyers are not as qualified or competent because they don’t see many of us in the courtroom.
One reason for the lack of diversity among plaintiff lawyers is that many law schools, certainly the top law schools, don’t guide students toward careers as trial lawyers. The focus is more on corporate law. It is difficult for students to navigate to personal injury work, and they have to do it on their own. They don’t get a lot of assistance from the law school placement departments.
Q: It’s one thing for firms to talk about diversity and say they embrace diversity, but what do you suggest firms do to really practice what they preach? What challenges to recruiting minority and women lawyers are firms up against?
A: Law firms have to make a concerted effort to recruit and employ diverse attorneys. The natural way to do that would be to partner with law schools. A law firm’s road to a diverse, young attorney is easier than a young attorney’s road to a plaintiff firm. If the firm is serious about diversity and that is what it really wants, then the firm should reach out to minority student bar associations, work with law school placement programs, and give internship opportunities to minority and women law students.
Plaintiff firms face the same challenges in recruiting minority and women lawyers as they do in recruiting any other lawyers: Defense firms offer more opportunities, and starting salaries are better. Law students and young lawyers should understand that although defense firms may be willing to pay them significantly more, at least to start out, there is a potential to level the playing field at a plaintiff firm in terms of future earnings.
Also, law students and young lawyers should ask themselves: Are you going to be happy at a defense firm? Which practice taps into your passion and your heart? If your passion is representing those who need a voice and representing the interests of consumers, then you belong in a personal injury firm. It’s about educating students about what we really do and what’s available to them.
Q: You are involved in numerous advocacy organizations. Why is advocacy important to you and how do you use your career and your voice to effect positive change for women and minorities in the legal profession?
A: I guess it’s in my makeup. It’s my upbringing and what I’m used to. Both of my parents were educators and very active in community, civic, and civil rights organizations. My mother is still very active in the community. So I think advocacy was just in my blood.
Also, I am a proud trial lawyer—I don’t run away from that label; I embrace it. I do whatever I can to help steer other women and minorities toward the profession. I also reach out to law students when I can to educate them about the plaintiff bar and what opportunities may be out there for them and why this area of law is important. A lot of students are unfamiliar with the type of work we do.
Since I started my own firm, the three associates I’ve hired just happen to be women, but it just played out this way—my door isn’t closed to male attorneys. I try to emulate the senior partner who mentored me when I was starting out. He didn’t just hire me, bring me into the firm, and say go for it. He was very supportive and giving of his time. I could always go to him, ask questions, and bounce ideas off of him. He would give me direction and supervision when I needed it, but he also gave me the confidence and freedom to develop my own style and approach to the practice. Being an active mentor means you are willing to invest the time and energy into training and educating young lawyers about the practice.
Everyone has his or her strong suits. I try to tap into those strengths and encourage the lawyers who work with me to develop their own style and view of the practice. I’m open to their suggestions and a team approach as opposed to a “do it this way because that’s the way it’s always been done” approach. I also encourage them to be active in the community and support their efforts to do so. You have to be willing to invest time, which is not always easy, but it’s important.
I also stay active in the community and try to educate the community in terms of what the plaintiff bar actually does, as opposed to the propaganda they may hear about trial lawyers.
Q: What would your advice be for similarly situated women entering the profession today?
A: If this is the type of work you want to do, realize that the opportunities won’t fall into your lap. You have to get out there, network, make contacts, and find a niche or a way in. Once you get in, it’s just like anything else: Be prepared, be competent, work hard, and be committed to it, because being a trial lawyer requires all of that.
Q: What positive developments have taken place in recent years that give you hope for a more inclusive legal profession in the future?
A: Honestly, I’m encouraged by things happening within AAJ and other organizations. They have initiatives in place and are doing different things to encourage and focus on diversity and inclusion and broadening the tent.
- Am. Bar Assoc., Lawyer Demographics (2012), www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/migrated/marketresearch/PublicDocuments/
- Am. Bar Assoc., Commn. on Women in the Profession, Visible Invisibility: Women of Color in Law Firms (Oct. 2006).
- Barriers at the Bar: Interview with Michael Rosier, 38 Trial 38–41 (Aug. 2002).