Women Lawyers Need Balance

Every year at this time, I put Best Friends at the Bar on hold to spend time with family and friends.  It is a month-long hiatus that I know is enviable but that I feel entitled to after all these years.  And I LOVE it.  I will be at the Massachusetts shore with friends and at the Maine shore with family, and I can’t wait for the games to begin!

It is not that my work is over or that my desk is clear. That is not the case at all.  I am completing the manuscript for a new book, on deadline for a book proposal, developing a new soft skills program for associate lawyers, and writing speeches and developing Power Point slides for presentations in the Fall.  I am plenty busy.  But, that is not the point.

Vacation does not happen when your desk is clear.  Vacation happens when you need it and when your loved ones are available.  If you wait for the desk to be clear, vacation never will happen.  If you wait until someone at work tells you that the time is right, trust me, the time will never be right.

Understand what you need and what you have a right to expect.  You can do the math.  If you are on target with billable hours and have not taken your allotted vacation for the year, what are you waiting for?  It is time to act.  Go dip your toes in the ocean like me or go climb a mountain or take a cruise.  August is the perfect month for taking a break and chilling out.  September is a time when the law profession springs back into action.  After that, you are lucky if you get a break until Christmas Eve.

Go for it.  I know I will.  And, when September rolls around, I will be ready to go full steam ahead to grab the brass ring!

See you then.

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Good News for Women Lawyers with Families

Here is some very good news for women lawyers with family responsibilities.  In her article for Above The Law, Staci Zaretsky describes a new program for women litigators who no longer can make traditional law firm practice work because of childcare responsibilities and other aspects of family life.  She outlines a “hot new trend” of lawyers leaving law firms to join what she describes as a growing field of litigation finance and highlights the efforts of Fulbrook Capital Management in developing a program to fit the needs of women lawyers.

Known as “Virtual Women in Law,” the program is Fulbrook’s response to the recent loss of talent from women leaving law practice because of work-life conflicts.  This program takes advantage of all the latest digital technologies and will allow women lawyers to work from home — or whatever location they choose — with flexible hours.  Check it out here.

The founder of Fulbrook Capital Management and a former Latham & Watkins partner describes the Virtual Women in Law program as “designed to create an alternative distinguished career path for women lawyers, while tapping into an extraordinary pool of talent that otherwise might be unused, wasted, or spent on less than optimal terms.

Hat’s off to Fulbrook Capital Management in these efforts.  Of course, there are other firms that specialize in litigation financing, and, if you are interested in this field of work, you should check out a variety of options for your future.  This post is in no way an attempt to endorse the Fulbrook program over other similar programs.  You must do your homework.

And, as always, it is the hope that more traditional law firms will follow the example of Morgan Lewis, Baker McKenzie and others that have recently embraced telecommuting as an option for their lawyers and one that has proven to have no negative effects on productivity.

All of this is a step in the right direction toward keeping women lawyers in the workplace — if that is where they want to be.

 

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Problems that Still Plague Women Lawyers

No, the challenges for women lawyers are not over.  Progress has been made, but there remains much to do to create a level playing field for women and men in the profession.

The Law 360 fourth annual Glass Ceiling Report is out, and finds that women make up 34.8 percent of attorneys in the leading US firms, and that is up from 34 percent last year.  Call me a skeptic, but I do not think that 8/10th of a percent is any cause to throw a party.

The report further shows that, at the partner level, women represent 23 percent of both equity and non-equity partners.  This data is offered within the context that women comprised more than 50 percent of law school students in 2016, the highest percentage since 1992.  Before you cheer too loudly for that fact, consider that the report also showed that only nine of the 300 firms surveyed reported having a workforce that is 50 percent or more female.

Year after year we see no appreciable advancement of percentage of women in the profession and percentage of those who make partner.  The National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) has issued an annual survey on women in the profession for more than a decade, and the percentages have barely budged.  It is a sad read each year.

The reasons for this lack of progress seem to congregate around the topics of lack of flexibility in the legal work space and discrimination against women lawyers, including implicit bias, which is not acknowledged by far too many law firm and industry leaders.  At the same time as more and more women are choosing to enter the legal profession, there are still many challenges that are holding them back in terms of retention and advancement.  But, women will be women, and they continue to amaze me in their abilities to face these challenges head on.

A recent article in LawFuel, addressed some of those challenges and how women lawyers are meeting them.

  • Women Lawyers Constantly are Underestimated.  Too often they are treated like they are under qualified or not suited for their jobs.  Consider the fact that this is true even though women law students are typically at the tops of their graduating classes in terms of grade point averages and honors.
  • Women Lawyers are More Susceptible to Health Issues.  This is where you definitely have to “listen up.”  It is serious business.  The stress of being a lawyer can take a toll on anyone, but it is especially stressful for women who must prove themselves at every turn and find themselves on the receiving end of sexist comments and behaviors.  Chronic stress and poor coping techniques can result in depression.  Arm yourselves.  Get the stress OUT!  Let go of it.  Embrace something outside the office to arm you against negative triggers inside the office.
  • Women Lawyers Struggle with Work-Life Balance.  This is the ever-present challenge for women lawyers with home and family responsibilities, but it also affects lawyers who want time to develop their social lives.  The long hours at the office are not compatible with home or personal lives, and it can drive women out of the profession.  Hope lies in more flexible workplace practices, including working from home made possible by advances in technology, and a recognition that flexible schedules can work to the benefit of both the woman lawyer and the law firm that wants to retain talent.
  • Women Attorneys are Criticized for Their Looks.  This problem is much more prevalent for women lawyers than it is for male lawyers.  When did you ever hear of a male being told that he does not “look like an attorney?”  Shirt, tie, suit — check.  No comment.  But, it always seems like open season for critiquing women’s dress in the workplace.  If her skirt is too long, she looks like a spinster.  Too short, she looks like a street walker.  Hair too frizzy … hair cut too severe …. there is so much material in this playbook.  With the exception of too much thigh and cleavage, most of it is not acceptable.  Challenge it.  Ask what a lawyer “looks like.”  I have a friend who did that many years ago and established herself as no pushover for the boy’s club.  Now she bosses the men around!

As always, I know you are up to the challenge.  But, do not attempt it alone.  For every boy’s club, there needs to be a girl’s club.  Stick together and prevail!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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