January 31, 2022
Achieving law firm partnership, while challenging for anybody, is a statistically significant development for Indigenous attorneys like Finn Dixon & Herling LLP transactional lawyer, Skawenniio "Ska" Barnes.
Indigenous attorneys make up only 0.4% of all U.S.-based lawyers and 0.18% of law firm partners, with just a third of those partners being women, according to the most recent reports by the American Bar Association and the National Association for Law Placement, respectively. Private law firms that, like Finn Dixon, signed the Connecticut Bar Association's most recent Diversity and Inclusion Pledge and Plan reported 0.15% of partners and 0.17% of total attorneys as being Indigenous. Indigenous people make up 0.6% of the population of Connecticut and 1.3% of the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Barnes said her frequent experiences with marginalization, from quips about her name or appearance to racist assumptions about the supposed awfulness of growing up on a reservation, often compel the 2014 alum of Harvard Law School and Kennedy School of Government to hide her identity in professional settings.
"I've received comments about how I must have only been accepted to Ivy League universities for college and graduate school because of affirmative action, or how it must be nice to not pay taxes — which, for the record, is not true. I pay taxes like everyone else," said Barnes, who grew up in Kahnawake Mohawk Territory, in what was eventually named the Canadian province of Quebec, before earning her bachelor's degree at Yale University. "It's almost easier for people to not know what my background is, just because it helps me avoid spending time explaining myself or engaging in uncomfortable conversations that don't really add value."
But don't confuse this reticence with any lack of pride in her heritage. Barnes has advocated for her community since adolescence, when she successfully campaigned for a library on her tribe's land that bears her name. A desire to fight tragedies her family lived through, like losing land to the St. Lawrence Seaway and children to residential schools, inspired her to become a lawyer. Later, stereotypes about Indigenous attorneys' specialties influenced her eventual turn to her current transactional practice, which focuses on private equity and venture capital. Her family and tribe's long history of ironwork on New York City's buildings partly inspired her choice to work in the New York metropolitan area.
Barnes, who was elevated to partnership at the Stamford, Connecticut-based law firm this year, hopes to use her new position to make Finn Dixon more diverse through recruiting and retention. She spoke with Law360 Pulse on Jan. 25. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.