Women Lawyers Need to Consider Their Options

Today’s legal news outlets are full of conflicting information about the state of women in the law.  On the one hand, there are reports about law firms adopting policies to promote women, and, on the other hand, there are reports that female partner promotions are plunging in the UK, which gives us pause to wonder when that particular trend will hit the US.

There also are reports of gender pay gaps among in-house counsel, with women lawyers drawing the short straws, and the number of law suits by women law firm partners alleging pay discrimination is on the rise.  (For more information on gender pay equity, see my blog from earlier this year and read my comprehensive article on the subject in the DC Women’s Bar newsletter that is cited in the blog.)

What to do?  It is a serious question for all of you to contemplate.  It may be time to consider your options.

I have been writing and speaking on subjects related to women lawyers for the last decade.  Along the way, I have tried to keep the faith that right will prevail and that, with increased visibility, women will receive the equal treatment they are entitled to in the law profession.  I surely know that women lawyers are very qualified and represent great value to the profession, so it follows that they should be treated equally and fairly.  For me it was just a matter of time and shedding greater light on the issues.

But, I am not naive.  I founded the Best Friends at the Bar project because of the lack of progress on retention and advancement of women in the law, and, over the years, I have been struck by the continued slow progress and the unfair treatment that has accompanied it, and I fear that past is prologue.  So, today, I take a little different view.

Today, I tell women lawyers to band together to safeguard their futures– not only within the law firm but also outside of the law firm.  Perhaps at another law firm — one that they band together to form.  A place where they will respect each other and the individual circumstances that challenge each of them.  A place where they will help each other to prevail against those challenges with the confidence that a professionally satisfied lawyer is a lasting lawyer.

Women-owned law firms are becoming more and more prevalent, and, according to this recent article, an organization has been formed to help women lawyers in this endeavor.  Read the interview of Nicole Galli, who left Big Law to form her own women-owned law firm and now helps guide other women lawyers in their own similar pursuits.

Do not despair over weak statistics and slow progress.  That is not worth your time.  What is worth your time is planning for your future. So, just do it!

 

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Women Lawyers Must Own Their Careers

Whether it is “success on your own terms,” as some have called it, or “personal definitions of success,” as I call it in the Best Friends at the Bar book series, all efforts by women lawyers to find the right balance for satisfying and lasting careers should be dignified.  I learned all about this as I evolved through the women’s liberation and feminist years as a practicing lawyer with no children to the 1980’s when my children arrived and challenged my creativity as a professional.

I understand how important all of these phases of development for women have been.  I acknowledge the work of the feminists, and I understand how critical they were to our journey to the independence we enjoy today.  However, I also recognize that the male definitions of success that were embraced by those early pioneers have not worked for many women with home and family responsibilities, and defining ourselves in terms of male models has been, for many women, like setting ourselves up for failure.

At the same time, I acknowledge and applaud the women who have the support systems for keeping their homes and raising their children that allow them to aspire to the corner offices without interruption in their careers. We need those women to attain the critical mass of women in leadership and management positions to positively affect policies for women in the workplace.  But, we are not all those women. I certainly was not, and I had to reinvent myself many times in my role as a lawyer, wife and mother over the course of my long career, and that is why the Best Friends at the Bar project is so important to me.

The overriding truth in all of this is that we need to get away from any models of success that do not fit our circumstances, and we need to create personal definitions of success that work for us at different times in our lives. Those definitions will change, just as our profiles change as we move through the various phases of motherhood, child rearing, parental care and other personal life issues.  Fortunately, there are a multitude of practice choices to fit our needs at the various stages of our lives.  In my book Best Friends at the Bar:  The New Balance for Today’s Woman Lawyer (Wolters Kluwer/Aspen Publishers, 2012) I explore these various practice models through profiles of women who have successfully moved from one to another.  Take a look and find yourself in those pages.

Be strong and chart your own course.  Have the courage to pursue a path that may be unique to you and only you and the confidence to know that you will find a way to make it work.  Do not be deterred by the opinions and judgments of others.  They do not walk in your shoes, and many of them do not share your values.

Stay true to yourself, and you will be rewarded by the pride of knowing that your choices are yours, your successes are yours, and your rewards are yours.  You have to own your careers and your futures.

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Progress on Parental Leave — Not Just for Women Lawyers

The progress on maternity leave for lawyers has been significant in recent history, and more and more women lawyers are benefiting from law firm policies that are slowly coming into the 21st Century.  It is not surprising that the needs of mothers, who actually carry and give birth to the babies, should be the initial focus of parental leave, but the needs of the fathers are finally getting attention, as well.  Firms like Winston and Strawn and Orrick, that give both mothers and fathers up to 20 and 22 weeks of paid leave, respectively, are leading the way.  Orrick’s policy is based on identification as the “primary care giver” but also gives up to 9 months of leave to that lawyer.  Consider this in contrast to the federal Family and Medical Leave Act that requires businesses with 50 or more employees to give 12 weeks of unpaid leave to either a mother or father after the birth or adoption of a child.  For more information on how the US compares to other countries on family leave, see my former blog addressing those issues. 

This progress on parental leave is a big deal.  The expansion of parental leave to men not only will benefit male lawyers, but it will benefit families — meaning it also will benefit  women.  That is the way it is supposed to work.

According to a recent article in Am Law Daily, men are not only seeing progress on paternity leave at their law firms but they also are looking for opportunities to contribute to the post-birth care taking.  And, they are making a list and checking it twice of firms that “talk the talk but do not walk the walk.”  Unfortunately, it has become clear that, even though some firms have developed parental leave policies to include male lawyers, senior management still has not embraced the concept and can be judgmental about men taking advantage of the policies.  The associated stigma can have lasting effects on career advancement in some of these firms.  The law profession attracts ambitious lawyers, and the threat of such stigmas is powerful and includes concerns about “commitment” to the practice.  That dreaded C-word.  Women lawyer/moms know all about it.

We need to celebrate the progress we are seeing.  Statistics cited in the article show that, on average, law firms offer 15 weeks of maternity leave and seven weeks of paternity leave and that mothers take an average of 14 weeks off, while fathers take an average of four weeks.   These averages likely will increase, and men are now reporting experiences similar to those of their female colleagues, who found it more comfortable to take leave after other women in their firms had forged the way.

Here’s how one male lawyer quoted in the article described his experience:  “There are a number of other attorneys here who are fathers, and it was helpful to know they had all taken paternity leave and had really encouraged me to absolutely take advantage of it.  It wasn’t like you should think about whether you would take paternity leave.  It wasn’t like I was worried about if I should take paternity leave.  There was no hemming and hawing over it — it was a given.

At the same time, however, we must recognize that it is not all about firms doing “the right thing.”  It rarely is.  It also is about attracting and retaining top talent.  Firms finally are understanding what has been a theme of Best Friends at the Bar for a decade — that it is good business to retain and advance the talent of the best young lawyers — many of them women lawyers.

And that is what we all should hope for.  Keep your eye on this issue.

 

 

 

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The Big Picture on Gender Bias and Women Lawyers

The number of gender bias law suits and gender bias complaints against law firms is on the rise, based on this article in AmLaw Daily, which quotes David Sanford, the chairman of Sanford Heisler Sharp, who represents most of the plaintiffs in the current lawsuits.  Sanford also has represented countless other women lawyers in complaints against their law firms based on unequal opportunities and unequal pay as compared to their male colleagues.

Most of you probably have read at least something about the current law suits, but there is more that may come as a surprise to you.   What you may not know is that the higher you climb in a law firm, the more likely you are to encounter gender bias.  Just because you are experiencing what you believe is equal treatment as an associate or a non-equity partner, you should not be lulled into a state of complacency.   Here is how it is described in the article:

“When it comes to large law firms, gender disparities tend to heighten as lawyers move up the ranks. Although [Sanford] has seen instances of woman associates receiving lower bonuses than men, the lockstep approach that most firms use to set the base salaries for associates can put a check on differences in pay at that level.  But higher up the chain, employment conditions for lawyers often depend heavily on decisions made at the top of the firm. Firm leaders, for instance, decide whether to make a particular lawyer a partner. And they have control over compensation, deciding how bonuses are administered or which partners receive credit for originating a matter.

We see the differences arise at those key moments of discretionary authority,” Sanford said. “And that discretion is typically administered by males.

This is a major focus of Best Friends at the Bar, and I address these issues in my programs on effective leadership for women lawyers at law firms, law schools and law organizations throughout the country.  Appropriate use of the “discretionary authority” that Sanford talks about is a key component of effective leadership in law firms.  My writing and speaking on these subjects, including in my book, Best Friends at the Bar:  Top-Down Leadership for Women Lawyers (Wolters Kluwer Law & Business/Aspen Publishers, 2015), is full of examples of leadership behavior that screams implicit gender bias — and often comes as a big surprise to the male lawyers in the audiences.  In fact, after they acknowledge how “clueless” they are about the impact of this negative behavior, those lawyers begin to ask for more advice on how to turn negative behavior into positive leadership for the benefit of women lawyers and the firm.

That is when the real progress happens, and I love being a part of the transformation.

Does your law firm need this kind of candid discussion about gender bias?  Or do the leaders in your law firm want to remain clueless and vulnerable?  Do they want to continue to lose talent due to disregard and the convenience of complacency or do they want to take responsibility and become the effective leaders they can be?

Contact me to get your firm on the road to recovery from gender bias.  You will be glad you did.

 

 

 

 

 

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A Strong Message about Leadership for Women Lawyers

Today I write to you about effective leadership, recognizing that yesterday effective leadership intersected with politics in the American experience.  However, there should be nothing of partisan politics in seeing that experience for what it was:  Killing the messenger.

When I speak to audiences of attorneys and law students about effective leadership, as addressed in my book, Best Friends at the Bar:  Top-Down Leadership for Women Lawyers, one of the concepts that I stress is taking responsibility for your own actions and not killing the messenger.  It is a fundamental theme of effective leadership, as recognized by the most well-respected global leadership trainers, including my own personal leadership guru, Marshall Goldsmith.

Former FBI Director James Comey was not fired by the American President because of something he had done in the past.  He clearly was fired for something that it was feared he would do in the future.  Comey had made it clear that he was pursuing the investigation into White House personnel — including or not including the President, however, was not clear — as actions of those individuals may or may not relate to what has become known as “The Russian Problem.” 

That was what Comey did —- and that is why he was punished.  If you have any doubt about that, consider the fact that Comey’s past actions all had been praised by the President, time and time again.  In fact, those past actions may have benefited the President in getting him elected to the highest office in the land.

Your legal career will call on you repeatedly to become an effective leader — in small ways and in much larger ways.  To be an effective leader, you must be honorable, honest, and maintain your dignity.  You must not blame others, and you must not kill the messenger.  You cannot be or do any of those things if you compromise yourself with actions that you cannot defend.

Start now, at the beginning of your career so that doing the honorable, honest and dignified thing becomes second nature to you.  Do as former Attorney General Eric Holder tweeted this morning to the career men and women at the Department of Justice and the FBI :

You know what the job entails and how to do it. Be strong and unafraid. Duty. Honor. Country.

That just about says it all.

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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.

 

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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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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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