Navigating the Glass Cliff – Challenges Faced by Racialized Lawyers in Leadership

April 16, 2024


On March 20, I presented at FACL Ontario’s conference’s panel on ‘Leadership for Asian Canadians: Realities and Challenges’ where I discussed the effects of the ‘glass cliff’ on Asian lawyers. 


Racialized lawyers face unique challenges on their path to leadership. A 2022 report from the American Bar Association1 showed an alarming trend of racialized lawyers, including Asian lawyers, leaving private practice at higher rates and being significantly underrepresented in leadership positions.  


Despite increasing diversity within law firms and legal departments, women, minorities and other marginalized groups lawyers often find themselves pushed into leadership roles during tough times, a phenomenon known as the “glass cliff.” In this blog, I will outline the challenges faced by racialized lawyers and provide strategies for successfully navigating precarious situations associated with the glass cliff. 


The Glass Cliff 


The glass cliff describes how senior racialized lawyers can feel set up to fail at law firms and legal departments. During crises, racialized lawyers are often ‘parachuted’ into leadership positions as a last resort or in response to DEI efforts. They often bear unrealistic expectations, tasked with solving complex organizational problems that inevitably lead to failure. When they can’t meet these impossible demands, they may leave, unfairly labeled as unqualified. 


This phenomenon illustrates that when racialized lawyers finally break through to leadership positions, building on the concept of the ‘glass ceiling’, they are more likely to encounter challenging situations with a high risk of failure. Whether grappling with racial bias, implicit stereotypes, or unrealistic performance standards, these leaders are burdened with addressing deep-seated organizational issues, often without sufficient support or resources. 


Disparities in leadership ranks exist across law firms, government, and academia. Even within in-house legal departments, where Asian lawyers are more prevalent, there is a reported struggle to climb the ranks. 


Confronting the Glass Cliff 


Addressing the glass cliff requires implementing strategies that support racialized lawyers across all career stages. While OCIs often focus on junior candidates, there’s a pressing need for support and recognition of challenges faced by mid-level and senior lawyers, especially concerning partnership opportunities.  


This entails establishing ongoing evaluation and feedback mechanisms to ensure equitable progression within firms. Unfortunately, many law firms and legal departments lack the necessary infrastructure for this transition, often relying on insufficient mentorship programs or DEI initiatives.  


Real progress requires a comprehensive approach at every level. This entails embedding a consistent commitment to fostering diversity and inclusion throughout the law firms and legal departments, rather than simply ‘parachuting’ racialized lawyers into leadership positions as a last resort. 


Overcoming these barriers requires concerted action from within the legal community. By acknowledging and actively dismantling systemic barriers hindering the advancement of racialized lawyers, we can foster a legal profession that is genuinely inclusive and diverse.