Thought For The Day

“To get the full value of joy you must have someone to divide it with.”

Mark Twain

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Women Lawyers: Are You Imagining Gender Bias?

Talk to women lawyers, and many of them will tell you the same thing about gender bias.  That “same thing” is that, when they call it out, they are told that they are imagining things.  That they are imagining that they are being denied opportunities because of their gender.  That they are imagining that they are being held to different standards because they are women.  Yes, imagining it.

The explanations for why they may be imaging it are as lame as being told that “boys will be boys.”  According to my friend Andrea Kramer and her husband Alton Harris in their book, Breaking Through Bias: Communication Techniques for Women to Succeed at Work, other such lame explanations are:

  • “You’re too sensitive;”
  • “You can’t take a joke;”
  • “We always promote the best candidate;”
  • “We’re a real meritocracy; everyone is judged exclusively on their own merits;” and
  • “I can assure you I am not gender biased.”

I understand this completely.  Here’s my story from so many years ago.

As a first year associate, and one of only two women lawyers in a firm of over 25 men, I was assigned to a case that required travel to gather the facts and prepare for arbitration.  As the time approached when I would be traveling with a male partner, rumors started to spread in the law firm.  A particular partner was speculating aloud about a man and a woman traveling together and “one thing leading to another.”  He was using my name and including me in compromising scenarios, and it was despicable.

It also was a first.  Because I and one other female were the first women lawyers at the firm, traveling with a male colleague was a new topic of conversation.  And, the conversation was salacious.  By the time that I became aware of it, something had to be done.  Several of the other male partners offered to help, but I declined their offers.  I told them that I would take care of it myself.

So, I walked into the offending partner’s office and asked to have a word with him.  I also asked for permission to close the door, and after I did, I made it clear to him that I knew what he was saying and that I found it completely unprofessional.  I told him that I was a happily married woman and that his remarks were harming my husband as much as they were harming me.

His response was lame.  “Why, Susan, you don’t have a sense of humor,”  to which I replied, “And Mr. X, you don’t have a sense of dignity.”  I told him that I found his behavior very offensive and that it was not what I expected when I joined the law firm.   And, I told him that it needed to stop immediately.

It did stop.  He stopped the offensive speculation, and he also stopped talking to me entirely.   In fact, he did not talk to me for almost six months.  That also meant that he was not looking down my blouse or commenting on my perfume during that same time period.  AND, when he did start talking to me again, it was with new-found respect.

Remember, he was a partner, and I was a first year associate. Yes, my knees were knocking when I walked into his office.  Yes, I did not know where the conversation would lead.  Yes, I was taking a chance with my job.  But I also knew something else.

You should NEVER, put up with lame excuses for being treated unfairly because you are a woman.  Face down gender bias.  If it means that you must leave your employer, you will know that it was no place for you to begin with.

No job is worth being demeaned and disrespected.

 

Career Counselors, Law Firm Managers, Law School Educators, Law Students, Practice Advice, Young Lawyer | 1 Comment

A Primer for Lawyer/Moms: Just Out and a Must Have

I first met Lori Mihalich-Levin soon after her first baby was born and when she was in the overwhelmed-by-baby-and-the-thought-of-returning-to-work stage.   Our lunches were enjoyable but a bit somber.  She was struggling, and I wanted to help her.

Lori and I had been connected by a mutual friend at Georgetown Law.  Although there were many years between my years at the law school and Lori’s, we had a lot in common.  Returning to law practice after not just one, but two, babies had been difficult for me, and now that was happening to Lori.  It is hard to know what to say because law practice has its own set of rules.  Nothing is easy there — especially for women.

In time, Lori figured it all out, as I knew she would.  Lori’s overwhelmed stage morphed into the wisdom-and-I-can-do-anything stage, as with so many women who experience it.  But, Lori did not stop there.  She wrote down her thoughts and developed programs to pass on to others the benefit of all she had painstakingly learned.  Lori is the exception.  First she started a “Mindful Return” program, and then she wrote a book.   In her spare time, of course!

You can read all about Lori, her book and her projects in this article in the Washington Post.  It captures all of the profiles of the book, which is made richer by myriad contributions from experts in the many fields that combine to capture a daunting experience.  Honestly, nothing in my life prepared me for the first time I had to drive away from my baby — not to the grocery store, not to the post office, and certainly not to the  law office.  It is in a league of its own for creating doubt and fear and longing.

But, that “baby” of mine is now a woman lawyer, too.  Children survive and thrive, and so do Mommy Lawyers.  But, it never hurts to have a little help from a friend.

Lori is that friend.  Get the book!

 

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Thought For The Day

“Never mistake activity for achievement.”

John R. Wooden

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Thought For The Day

“Beauty is being the best possible version of yourself.”

Audrey Hepburn

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Solutions for the Low Retention Rates for Law Firm Associates

 

The subject of the low retention rates for women lawyers, as published recently on Law.com, was addressed in last week’s blog.  What?  You did not read the last blog?   Shame, shame.  I write them so that you will read them and have a “leg up” in making career decisions.  Fortunately, former blogs are so easy to find on my web site.  But to help you out, here is the link to that blog.  I understand how busy you are.

The solutions offered by the Law.com article focus on the needs to run law firms more like traditional businesses to eliminate some of the administrative tasks for junior lawyers, the use of fixed fee billing arrangements to increase the exposure that junior lawyers will have to higher value projects, an increased use of technology, and clear paths to partnership and metrics-based evaluations systems in making partnership decisions.

Those are all good thoughts, and some of them might work.  However, I like to focus more directly on the causes for the high attrition in finding solutions to improve associate retention, which, of course, includes retention of women lawyers.

  • More training and mentoring for associates.  Although lack of associate training and mentoring has traditionally been a problem, it is even more true today when newbie lawyers come into law firms and are tasked with administrative jobs that require them to be stuck to computers for ten hours a day and bear little resemblance to what they envisioned as practicing law.  The focus is on billable hours, for both associates and partners, and most senior lawyers are not taking much time out to train young lawyers and mentor them.  For young lawyers, who grew up on team efforts, it is hard to feel like a member of a team under those circumstances.  They crave mentoring and feedback on their work and, when they get little of either, they get discouraged and wonder whether they made the right choice of law firm or even of career.  The answer, of course, is to provide the training and the mentoring that will keep the talent around.  Either the training and mentorship must be provided by firm lawyers or the firm is going to have to bring in consultants to take over those responsibilities.  That will mean making a choice to pay those consultants or give “credit” to lawyers who undertake those responsibilities at the firm, and both can be sticky wickets unless the critical need for training and mentorship is understood.  But, it should be worth it to the firms — especially in the talent war for associates going on these days.
  •  Open up more clear pathways to the top.  This solution is related to PPP (profit per partner) that drives a lot of decisions in law firms.  PPP is determined by how many partners share the profit pie, and it is used by established ranking entities to rate law firms and to publish those ratings.  When profitability stagnates, as it has during the recent recession, and when equity partners are not retiring during these same challenging economic times, law firms are reluctant to make more equity partners to share in the pie.  As a result, the trend has been for law firms to make more classes of non-equity partners and to slow the path to equity partnership and/or to require larger books of business to make it through the equity partnership gate.  So, there are really only two solutions.  Either law firm partners are going to have to become less greedy to retain talent or law firm management is going to have to start forcing top partners out.  If those partners are big rainmakers, you can see that it becomes a real dilemma.  So, this one is not easy either.
  • Millennials will have to adjust some of their expectations.  Millennials have different expectations about the workplace than prior generations.  Some of those are very admirable — like the aversion to the workaholic lifestyle of lawyers and the desire for less toxic work environments.  Some of them, however, are not practical in the legal setting.  Yes, law is a business, but it is a business that is highly dependent on nuanced arguments and research that do not lend easily to the rapid responses of technology.  Some of it just takes a lot of tedious and hard work.  However, that work all does not have to be done at the office, and the movement today toward telecommuting for lawyers is a step in the right direction.  It allows for improved work-life balance, and, when done right, it also leaves adequate room for the face time at the office that is critical to issues of advancement.

One way or another, law firms are going to have to address these issues.  I have been focusing on most of these issues for a decade now through the Best Friends at the Bar project, and, admittedly, the solutions are not easy.  However, that is no reason not to put our shoulders to the wheel and find effective and lasting solutions.  The future of the profession depends on it.

 

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Thought For The Day

“We can find common ground only by moving to higher ground.”

Jim Wallis

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Thought For The Day

“We can learn to see each other and see ourselves in each other and recognize that human beings are more alike than we are unalike.”

Maya Angelou

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