Are Law Firms Nudging Women Lawyers Out?

In my last blog, I acknowledged that most law firms are not throwing women out, but I suggested that nudging women out accomplishes the same goal — even if it is benign by appearance.  My comments were a reaction to an assertion that “women lawyers are selecting themselves out of law firms.”  Not so much, I think, or, at least, not without help from the law firms.

Here’s an example of nudging or what some would call unintentional bias.  Most women love sharing.  They recognize it as a righteous and noble thing to do, and they teach their children to share.  However, many Big Law firms today are organized as a series of smaller practices within the larger firm, and each of the “silo” practices can become very isolated and unwelcoming of outside influence. There is the healthcare silo, the financial services/real estate silo, the environmental silo… and on and on and on.  The result is that there is very little client sharing and cross-selling between and among the silos, and there is a certain amount of distrust generated by the system.   Sandbox 101 does not seem to be alive and well in many large law firms today, and women lawyers can find that to be an unwelcoming environment.  It can contribute to them selecting themselves out.

Law firms also nudge women out through the client development practices that most often are not very women-friendly and through lawyer evaluation and review programs that favor the boastful and disfavor realistic self-evaluations and career goals.  Should women be effectively excluded from client development opportunities because they do not enjoy  ice hockey, boxing matches, and cigars?  Is it a woman’s fault that cut-throat competition for clients is not one of her favorite pastimes?  Should a woman be disadvantaged because she is realistic about her skill sets and motivated to improve rather than to overlook skill deficiencies and overstate competencies? 

These unconscious biases are the tools with which law firms nudge women lawyers out and send them packing toward the home front or alternative practices — even when don’t want to go.  The mistake of the past is thinking that the departure of women from law firms at alarming rates is all about flexible schedules and the need to work part-time.  Work-life challenges are only a part of it.  Maybe when law firm leaders figure that out, and before all of the female talent is lost for good, we can have real and meaningful conversations about why women lawyers leave.

Until then, read my new book, Best Friends at the Bar:  Top-Down Leadership for Women Lawyers (Wolters Kluwer/Aspen Publishers 2015), and discover some interesting research.  Recommend it to your colleagues, especially those “at the top.”  They are the ones who really need it.


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