Date of Award
Doctor of Business Administration (DBA)
School of Business
Paul Shelton, Ph.D.
Kathy Milhauser, DMgt
Brad M. Jensen, Ph.D.
This doctoral dissertation delved into the intricate experiences of African American female law partners, seeking to unravel the diverse array of factors that shaped their ascension to the pinnacle of their legal careers. Employing a rigorous qualitative research methodology, this study undertook an extensive exploration of narrative data derived from in-depth interviews, with the overarching aim of addressing the research questions articulated at the outset. These questions revolved around understanding how African American female law partners perceived the factors influencing their professional promotion and how race and gender impacted their leadership journeys and broader careers within the legal profession. The culmination of this research endeavor resulted in the emergence of five overarching themes: (a) continuous race and gender challenges, (b) exceptional job performance, (c) relationship builders, (d) the firm’s environmental context, and (e) the tenacious doers.
The narratives shared by African American female law partners in this study provided a rich tapestry of experiences that directly addressed the core research inquiries. Their journeys to partnership unveiled a complex interplay of racial and gender factors that significantly molded their professional identities, decision-making processes, and ultimate successes. These narratives offered profound insights into the multifaceted ways in which race and gender exerted influence on their careers, thereby presenting a valuable perspective on the challenges they faced and the strategies they employed as African American women within top-tier corporate law firms. Notably, job performance emerged as a pivotal mediator of success in attaining partnership status. “Being a good team member” emerged as a critical concept that intersected with supervisor and peer support, mentorship, and sponsorship. It signified a constructive engagement with colleagues and reflected a profound commitment to institutional objectives and practices. In this capacity, it acted as a conduit to sponsorship opportunities and, by extension, partnership status. On the other hand, “Being the Best in the Room” resonated with the theme of “Tenacious Doers,” amalgamating the categories of “Success Motivated” and “Overachievers.” This category epitomized the surpassing of preconceived expectations and limitations through meticulous skill and expertise, representing the zenith of professional development. Importantly, it countered stereotype threats, as evidenced by the narratives shared by study participants.
In a broader theoretical context, the utilization of self-determination theory (SDT) provided a comprehensive framework for comprehending the intricate experiences and pathways of African American female law partners within top U.S. corporate law firms. Aligning the emergent themes with SDT’s constructs offered a layered understanding of how autonomy, competence, and relatedness played pivotal roles in shaping these unique professional journeys.
In summary, this dissertation illuminated a constellation of factors that intersected to influence the professional advancement of African American female attorneys in the elite corporate legal environment. Through their lived experiences, these women navigated a labyrinthine career path characterized by systemic barriers and enriched by mentorship, sponsorship, and networking opportunities. Their narratives served as inspirational anecdotes and crucial data points for fostering organizational change, underscoring the imperatives of inclusion and diversity within the legal profession. These findings shed light on the challenges faced and the resilience and strategies employed by these remarkable individuals, thereby providing a roadmap for future scholars and practitioners seeking to comprehend the intricate interplay of race and gender in professional settings.
Kelly, Tony, "Phenomenological Study of African American Female Partners in Top U.S. Corporate Law Firms" (2023). Doctor of Business Administration (DBA). 65.