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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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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Why Women Lawyers Leave Firms: Astonishing New Statistics

Why do women lawyers leave?

I have been pondering, speaking about and writing about this issue for a decade.  It is fundamental that, before we can try to fix our profession with solutions like lateral hiring, mergers and expanding into new markets, we must delve deep into the roots of the attrition problems.

For years it was hard to get law firm management to talk about the high rates of attrition for women lawyers.  For many of those years, new law graduates were plentiful, and it was a buyers’ market.  That all changed with the Great Recession and the fall off in the number of students in law schools.  Now, there is a talent war for the best of the young lawyers, and it has shifted the focus more toward retention.  That is a good thing, but the reasons for the high attrition rates — for both male and female lawyers — are still not well understood.

So, I was very pleased to read “Top 3 Reasons for Associate Attrition and 3 Ways to Combat It” on Law.com recently.  The new statistics cited in that article and the assertion that the most expensive and surprising problem facing law firms today is not client retention or salaries but associate attrition is validation of so many of the programs that I have presented over the years to law firms and bar associations.  And, make no mistake, this “problem” is all about women lawyers — because women are at the tops of their law school graduation classes and often represent the best of the associate talent in the profession.  Losing that kind of talent can hurt a lot.

According to a report by Overflow Legal Network relied on in the article:

  • Almost 46 percent of associates leave their firm within the first three years, and 81 percent leave in the first five years; and
  • At a 400-person law firms, associate attrition can result in losses of over $25 million annually — not including the knowledge and client relationships that depart with departing associates.

Yes, you read that right.  $25 million.  That is an amazing and grim statistic, and it should grab the attention of every law firm manager.  These new statistics are consistent with a NALP survey that I have relied on for years, which found that 76 percent of women lawyers leave Big Law in the first five years, but that survey was about women associates and was explained by work-life issues associated with starting families.  However, this new statistic is not limited to women lawyers and it is not limited to Big Law.  Without those qualifiers, it is shocking and needs to be taken very seriously.

The causes for this high rate of attrition, as cited in the article, are:

  • Lack of associate training and mentoring;
  • Longer partnership tracks and requirements for larger books of business to protect the Profits Per Partner at the tops of firms; and
  • The expectations of members of the millennial generation regarding things like work-life balance, the role that technology should play in the work place, and clearly defined measures of success.

So, you say, what are the solutions?  You will have to stay tuned for next week’s blog to find out!

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Will Flexible Work Models Improve Law Firm Culture?

Below is a copy of the op-ed that I wrote and that was published on March 21, 2017 in National Jurist “Lawyer & Statesman” on-line magazine.  I hope that you find it interesting and that you, too, will gain some hope that the events described present positive changes for women lawyers and for all lawyers in law firm cultures.

The link to the op-ed is:  http://www.nationaljurist.com/content/op-ed-flexible-work-models-should-improve-law-firm-culture

Op-ed: Flexible work models should improve law firm culture
March 21, 2017

By Susan Smith Blakely

I have seen the effects of insensitive law firm cultures in my own career and the careers of so many others. Although the most severe impact has been to women lawyers with family and childcare responsibilities, male practitioners also have suffered from the inflexible demands of a profession that has refused to examine itself critically.

Until now, perhaps.

Within a week’s time, announcements by Big Law players on major work-life initiatives in their law firms have provided hope that the sands may be shifting in favor of more reasonable policies and programs to reflect a changing world. This is recognition that the millennial generation, especially, is capable of embracing current technology that could benefit both themselves and their law firms.

Last week, Morgan Lewis announced its initiative allowing associates, who have been at the firm for at least two years, the opportunity to work from home two days a week. Similar announcements followed this week by Jackson Lewis and Baker McKenzie.

Peter May, Baker McKenzie’s chief talent officer, described the incentive behind the new program this way: “If you actually create an environment that is flexible, that enables people to be at their best no matter where they happen to be, you’re going to have much more engaged employees. If they’re more engaged they’re going to be more productive, and if they’re more productive, that’s going to have huge organizational implications.”

Morgan Lewis’s rationale for its forward-thinking program, however, was the one that got my attention and buoyed my spirits the most. That rationale revolved around the recognition that losing talent is very destructive to law firms and that making tested and proven work-life concessions will help protect talent in a very competitive industry.

Yes, this rationale is more law firm centric, but it reflects the truth that we all know to be the greatest motivator for change: Competition. Let’s call it what it is. Programs like this create a bond between employer and employee that often results in the kind of loyalty that traditionally has been missing in law firm cultures. One Morgan Lewis partner referred to the new program as necessary but very expensive. Another member of the firm described the program as “a reflection of the trust between the associates and the firm.”

We should take this as good news — very good news — and we should give the prescient leadership of these law firms the credit they deserve. We also can hope that other law firms will follow, and that what we are seeing is a law profession that is coming of age and throwing off the shackles of the past that are not only confining in a modern world but also are destructive.

As I wrote in a Corporate Counsel article “Is Work-Life Balance for Lawyers a Hopeless Goal in the Legal Profession?”:

“The only thing standing between the current workaholic culture of law firms and this brighter future for lawyers is greed. It was the greed of Wall Street that brought on the Great Recession in 2008, and that experience should serve as a harbinger to law firm leadership. Greed and pursuit of high profits at the expense of the well-being of lawyers and their families will lead to no good.”

Let’s call it what it is and make all efforts to do better.

Susan Smith Blakely is a lawyer, author, speaker and career coach. She is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and Georgetown University Law Center. She is the founder of LegalPerspectivesLLC, and her Best Friends at the Bar Book series addresses the low retention and advancement rates for women lawyers. She can be reached through her website, www.bestfriendsatthebar.com.

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Investment Help For Young Women Lawyers — You NEED It!

Investment advisor!  The title alone makes most of us shutter, and typically the individual advisor evokes a similar response.  Not that they are bad people, but it is often a bad subject for us.  So, the advisor gets associated with the advice.  And, when the news is bad, it can be very bad.  Something and someone you do not want to think about.

As women, we sometimes shy away from this kind of “boring” financial dialogue on subjects like saving, prioritizing and budgeting.  After all, we like to keep things moving and exciting …… not get bogged down so that we have plenty of time to spend, spend, spend!  Those new fuschia-colored sandals for spring, the antique server that is ideal for the entrance hall, the trip to the tropics, and wheels to make you the envy of the young attorney in-crowd. Why would you want to have a discussion that might put a damper on all those fun things?

No, I am not dissing you, I am dissing US.  Women love beautiful and expensive things, and … well … it can get out of control.  And soon you are plummeting downhill faster than you ever imagined possible.  Then you are looking at the bankruptcy court — and you cannot discharge your student loan debt there.  Sorry.

Enter the investment advisor.  He or she could become your new BFF if you let it happen.  The guy described in the article below understands your life as a law firm associate — because he is one —- and he blogs by night on a “mission to prevent young lawyers from falling prey to their own lousy money management.”  Goodwin Procter seems to be good with that as long as he does not neglect his day job.

His name is Joshua Holt, and, until recently, he ran The Biglaw Investor website anonymously.  There is investment advice and newsletters on the site to provide tips to Big Law associates, who lack an understanding of how to manage the big bucks they are earning.

However, Joshua wants to be an equal opportunity website, so he also offers advice to young lawyers on the low end of the pay scale, like those public service lawyers, who are not making the big bucks.  He seems to understand that most law students did not have a lot of money to handle during those three years preceding the downpour of any bucks at all, and that making a salary of any kind can be daunting.

The bottom line is that we all need financial advice — unless we have a lifetime supply of green eye shades.  Young lawyers with massive student loan debt REALLY need it.  In fact, in a rush of humility, Joshua identifies himself on the website as starting his career with $200,000 in student debt and with “zero understanding of how to manage a $160,000 salary and enough anxiety to immobilize a small horse.”  Does that sound familiar?

If, so, check out the website below.  This is not an endorsement of Joshua Holt and/or his advice.  I do not know Joshua or what kind of advice he dispenses.  He may not be for you.  But, chances are someone like Joshua is.  Be sure you find that person — PRONTO — to save yourself a lot of unnecessary grief.

http://www.americanlawyer.com/id=1202781434868/Its-a-Bird-Its-a-Plane-Its-Biglaw-Investor-to-Associates-Rescue?slreturn=20170229152715

 

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