How Women Lawyers Are Perceived: The Double Bind

Perception can be more important than fact.  I learned that when I was Chief of Staff for an elected official.  Politics is ripe for misperception, but the applications go far beyond that setting.

Women often are the unfortunate recipients of misperceptions.  And that is especially true of women lawyers.  For example, women lawyers often are judged in a harsher light than their male counterparts when they display assertiveness, self-promotion or anger, according to a survey conducted by the Center for WorkLife Law at UC Hastings College of Law for the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association.

The survey asked male and female lawyers whether they felt free to express anger at work when it’s justified, whether they are rarely interrupted at work, and whether they felt penalized for assertive behavior.

Their answers differed based on gender and sometimes based on race and generated the following findings:

  • Fifty-six percent of white male lawyers felt free to express anger, compared to only 40 percent of women lawyers of color and 44 percent of white women lawyers;
  • Two-thirds of male lawyers said they were rarely interrupted, compared to half of the women lawyers; and
  • Sixty-two percent of white male lawyers said they are not penalized for being assertive, compared to only 46 percent of women lawyers of color and 48 percent of white women lawyers.

A separate study led by Arizona State University psychology professor Jessica Salerno looked at anger in the courtroom.  The study, published in Law and Human Behavior, was summarized by Psychology Today, U.S. News & World Report and ASU Now.

In that study, nearly 700 people watched videos of male or female lawyers delivering  closing arguments using angry tones, and study participants were questioned about whether they would hire the lawyers.  The participants used positive aspects of the angry closings to justify hiring male lawyers but referred to negative aspects of anger to justify not hiring the female lawyers.

The male lawyers, who demonstrated anger, were perceived as commanding, powerful, competent and hirable.  By contrast, the women lawyers who showed anger were identified as less competent, shrill, hysterical, grating and ineffective, according to the ASU Now article.  Professor Salerno concluded, as reported in U.S. News, that the study demonstrated that female lawyers can be penalized for showing the same characteristics as male lawyers.

As a result of these studies, women need to think twice about how they present themselves at the office and in the courtroom.  At the office, the reward is acceptance and promotion.  In the courtroom, the reward is to win.

One female trial lawyer, who is also a former judge and prosecutor, acknowledges the double standard and accepts the challenge.  However, she also has the following advice for women lawyers in the courtroom:  Wear dresses, low heeled shoes, little to no jewelry, smile a lot but don’t appear to be laughing.

The courtroom double standard is also examined in an Atlantic article by University of San Francisco law professor Lara Bazelon, a former public defender who interviewed more than two dozen female trial lawyers about their experiences.  Bazelon says that women lawyers have to deal with sexism and biases by judges, lawyers, jurors and clients.

She begins by citing a 2001 report concluding that women lawyers face a double standard/ double bind in which they must avoid being seen as too soft or too strident, and too aggressive or not aggressive enough.  To test the thesis, she interviewed women lawyers and concluded that the double standard still exists today.  All of the women interviewed agreed that abandoning traits associated with being female can severely hinder delivery of a zealous defense in particular.

Bazelon says she tells her law students that “their body and demeanor will be under relentless scrutiny from every corner of the courtroom [and] that they will have to pay close attention to what they wear and how they speak and move.”

Other women lawyers take a broader view and see it as a likability/confidence issue that affects women in any leadership role.  One sees the tradeoff as signaling that women need to be assertive enough to command confidence but not assertive enough to be seen as abrasive.  Another describes an effective strategy as being “relentlessly pleasant.”

Still another woman lawyer cautions against choosing a strategy such as deference, which could undercut an assertive message and also may compromise effectiveness or authenticity.  She is joined by a colleague who emphasizes the importance of authenticity and earning the trust of the judge and jury to show them that their stereotypes are wrong.

It is a big issue and one that can be outcome determinative in both the law firm and the courtroom.  It requires sensitivity to your audience and a good bit of finessing.

Women lawyers can agree that it is not fair and should not be this way.  But it still is.

We have to learn to deal with reality and hope for change.


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Young Lawyers Should Reach For Their Dreams: The Example of Belva Lockwood

This blog post is not only for women lawyers.  It is for all young lawyers.  It just happens that Belva Lockwood is one of the best examples of reaching for dreams of practicing law — because of the lack of opportunities for women during her lifetime.

So, you say, “Who is Belva Lockwood?”  If you attend or attended George Washington University Law — where she graduated from a predecessor law school there and where the Belva Lockwood Society is very active — you would know.  If not, it is much less likely that you ever have heard of her.

I am fortunate to be a guest at the Belva Lockwood luncheon from time to time (yes, they do let Georgetown Law grads attend!), so I have heard her story told by those who know it best.  Here is that story for those of you who have not heard it before. 

Like Belva Lockwood, all young lawyers need to follow their dreams.  It is more important than ever because the profession has changed so dramatically so quickly:

  • Technology now has such a prominent role in law practice that young lawyers spend hours and hours each day in front of computer monitors isolated and  doing work that does not feel remotely like what they thought was the promise of a hard-earned law degree; 
  • Today there are so many layers between partners that control clients and entry level lawyers, especially in Big Law, that young lawyers are denied the mentoring experiences which are so meaningful to them and so important to developing talent and future law firm leaders; and
  • Today young lawyers in large private practice venues are being managed by associates more senior to them — associates who have no experience in management, supervision or positive reinforcement/motivation.  Instead, those more senior associates are competing with more junior associates for the prize of partnership, which makes them unlikely and ineffective in mentoring roles.

Young lawyers deserve more.  They deserve interesting work and helpful feedback to make their work as meaningful as possible.  My recent blog makes that clear.  If you missed it, I suggest you read it and know that there are people who understand your dilemma and are on your side.

My advice to you is:  Don’t settle.  If you are not getting what you need in your current practice setting, look beyond it.  Get a copy of my book about balance where I explore a wide variety of practice settings and include examples of lawyers, who have left law firms and successfully transitioned into new venues.

To define your professional dream, you will have to value your talents and the best place to use them.  Sometimes taking the long view requires getting the critical experience you need before moving on, but that does not mean that you should give up on your dreams.  During that learning experience, remember that you deserve to have a professional life that satisfies you and also allows you to have a satisfying personal life.  It is hard to be truly satisfied in either your professional or personal life without that kind of balance.

To keep your options open and follow your dreams, you also need to keep your spending in check.  Make good business decisions and save money for a rainy day that may come while you are figuring it all out.  That savings also will give you the flexibility to take a lower paying but more satisfying job at some point in your future.

Use the example of Belva Lockwood and her grit and determination.  Don’t take “no” for an answer any more often than you must.  “No” is discouraging.  “I will find a way” is exhilarating.  That should be your goal.





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Young Lawyers: Are You Addressing Your Workplace Wellness?

Wellness is a big deal in the legal world today.  Not wellness as in healthcare law.  Wellness as in the mental and physical health of lawyers.

We know that statistics support a concern about drug and alcohol addiction among lawyers, but until recently the effects of anxiety and depression had not gotten as much attention.  It was a 2016 landmark study by the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation that revealed to me just how widespread and alarming the problems have become among lawyers.

Anxiety and depression experienced by law professionals are serious and frequent and, in some cases, have led to suicides.  It is why law schools are joining the ABA and other bar associations in identifying wellness as a priority.  A recent article in the ABA Journal addressed concerns by summer associates for their mental health, and it has been shown that much of the anxiety and depression starts in law school and follows young lawyers into practice.

And most recently some Big Law firms are taking the concerns to the next level.  Firms like Reed Smith and Akin Gump have developed informational programs on wellness, and Latham Watkins is in the process of employing a Global Wellness Manager in its NYC office.  And many other firms have signed on to the Well-Being Pledge, a campaign launched by the ABA in September 2018 that encourages legal employers to take steps to improve the health and well-being of lawyers.

Concerning, yes.  Surprising, no.  Lawyers sacrifice their own mental and emotional wellness on a regular basis to meet sometimes unrealistic deadlines set by managing lawyers, courts and clients.  The legal profession is high pressure by definition, and there is an overwhelming perception that practitioners have to be perfect.  As a result, there is no reasonable expectation that the stresses caused by these kinds of pressures will be eliminated from practice, but learning how to manage and prevent them from elevating to serious anxiety and depression is key to survival and avoidance of professional burnout.

Some ways to attack improved wellness were offered by a concerned law professor in an article for Above the Law recently.  Interestingly, the author uses a comparison that I have used so many times when she points out that managing wellness is a lot like dealing with low oxygen levels on an airplane.  You have heard the flight attendants tell you over and over again to put your oxygen mask on first before you help others with theirs.  In other words, if you do not take care of yourself first, you will not be capable of helping others.  Not family, not friends, and not clients.

The author’s observation about inability to focus on the job and/or regrets about lack of happiness need to be taken particularly seriously, and also check out her suggestions about coping mechanisms to see what might be right for you.  Not everyone wants to keep a journal or meditate, but there is plenty more to choose from.

And pay attention to the professor’s comments on seeking therapy.  The stigma attached to mental and emotional therapy has become an unnecessary obstacle to wellness, and it must be overcome.

Hands down, my favorite part of the article is the 3Rs for those times when you feel on the verge of an anxiety attack:

  • Recognize that you are experiencing stress;
  • Relax by taking a break, walking your dog or participating in some other form of relaxation; and
  • Reroute your negative thoughts by challenging them and concentrating on a plan to move forward.

In other words, be kind, compassionate and forgiving of yourself.  Be well.



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The Importance of Feedback for Millennial Lawyers

Millennial lawyers need feedback from supervising attorneys on a project basis — not just once or twice a year in scheduled reviews.  That is well-established.  People in positions like mine hear it all the time, and we know how important feedback is to junior lawyers — especially those who were raised with an abundance of feedback and mostly praise.

What does not get as much attention is the critical failure by law firms to revise review policies and mentoring efforts to meet the feedback needs of young lawyers.   As I have stated to law firm and bar association audiences time and time again, that failing is very risky.  Young lawyers travel light and will relocate over issues like failure to mentor — or just plain not showing enough interest in their career paths.

For those senior lawyers whose response is “don’t care” — and I have met some of them — my response is that they will care after they discover how expensive it is to replace talent.

Nicole Abboud hits the issue square on the head in her recent video on the subject.  I like what Nicole is doing as a contributor to the Attorney at Work project, and I also like that she had me as a guest recently on her The Gen Why Lawyer podcast to discuss millennial lawyers.  Check out the May 31, 2019 episode on The Gen Why Lawyer website to listen to our discussion.

Nicole is thoughtful and devoted to raising issues that are being glossed over by others in the profession.  In this case, she uses her own experience as an associate lawyer to take a deep dive into what it is like to have your work product ignored.  Take a look at the video.  My guess is that you will be able to relate to the anxiety and damage to self-esteem and confidence about your career choice that result from this lack of feedback.  And it is so unnecessary.

Times change.  Law practices should do the same.  What worked before, does not work now.  Even if senior lawyers do not think that the degree of feedback millennials need is necessary, IT IS what millennials need.  And the need won’t go away.  Millennials were raised with an abundance of attention paid to them and in an age of instant gratification made possible by new technologies.  They are the product of their times.

Often when I am addressing senior lawyers, who I know are challenged to understand or even appreciate millennials, I remind them of their contribution to the very thing about which they complain.  Many of those lawyers are parents of millennials.  Bingo!  Bring on the March of the Helicopter Parents!  They hovered, and they smothered and, yes, they made sure everyone got a trophy.  Distancing themselves from the result now seems a bit silly and disingenuous.

Rather than avoid the issue, they should face it straight on and become the leaders we need for a better future.  They should park their judgment genes on the office shelf and get busy training a new generation of lawyers who also will become a new generation of law firm leaders.  Their numbers alone make that a certainty.

So I say to law firm leaders, pay attention to these young lawyers.  Mentor them.  Give them feedback.  Show some real interest in them.  Learn their names, and call them by name.  Invite them to lunch.  It will take a small amount of effort compared to the potential benefits.  And you might actually enjoy doing for these young people what someone did for you in the day.

If you do your job right, it is an investment in the future of your law firm.  And the young lawyers of today will be equipped to become the effective law firm leaders of tomorrow.





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What All Lawyers Need to Know about Origination Credit

If you are a lawyer just beginning your career, you probably don’t spend a lot of time worrying about origination credit.  In fact, maybe you never heard of the concept.  That makes sense.  You have a lot of other things to worry about that affect you on a daily basis in pursuit of improving your skills and becoming the best lawyer you can be.

But there is a difference between “worrying about” and “being informed about.”  As far as I am concerned, every private practice lawyer, regardless of experience, needs to at least be familiar with the concept of origination credits.  To be uninformed about them is to be unfamiliar with one of the things rocking the legal world at this point in time.

Origination credit is a lot what it sounds like.  For past generations, the lawyer, who brings the client to the firm, gets some credit for future work done for the client even if he or she never spends another hour toiling away on work for that client.

So, a lawyer can “originate” the client but never work on the client’s matters again and still lay claim to a part of the proceeds generated by the client work.  And on a permanent basis.

The result is that the lawyers currently working on a client matter are not getting credit for all of the time billed because the originating lawyer, who is not working on the matter at all, is skimming off the top based on the origination event and may even be receiving the bulk of the compensation.

If that sounds unfair to you, you are in the company of many others who believe this is an antiquated concept and needs revisiting.  In fact, this alleged unfairness is at the heart of some of the very visible gender and diversity discrimination law suits pending against Big Law today.

To learn more about this concept and from the perspective of an in-house lawyer, see

In that article, you will read about efforts by in-house lawyers to assure that the relationship partners, who actually work on their matters, receive the compensation credit they deserve.  You will read about the frustration of in-house lawyers, who discover that lawyers they never have met or dealt with, are receiving part of the fees paid — fees that otherwise would go to the relationship partners that these in-house lawyers deal with on a daily basis.

You will also read comments from seasoned partners, who have benefited from origination credits throughout their careers but who also see the unfairness of the system.  Like this comment from Patricia Gillette, who I know and admire:

“[The system of origination credits} ensconces lawyers in a position and rewards them over and over again, and it creates silos rather than teams.  You can get credit for the rest of your life; it doesn’t give room for others.”

This is not to say that origination credit is not important or that the concept should be thrown out as with the proverbial baby with the bath water.  But a compromise where the relationship partner shares in some of the origination credit may be in order.  That would seem fair.

And fundamental fairness should underlie everything we do in the law.  Former Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter said it best so many years ago, and I agree!



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The Future of Billable Hours — What All Young Lawyers Love to Hate

Billable hours.  Ugh.  The end all and be all in most law firms today.  Together with client origination, billable hours have been the measure of success for law professionals for generations.

2200 annually.  2000.  1950.  It really doesn’t matter.  The ounce of flesh that is exacted to reach those numbers is considerable and should be of primary concern. Wellness of professionals, wholesome law firm values, training young lawyers to become law firm leaders, and client service should matter most — not billable hours.

Despite these countervailing considerations, we keep concentrating on leveraging and law firm profits, all of which derive directly from billable hours.  Although there have been many commenters over recent years exposing the weaknesses of such a high concentration on billable hours, the profession has not seen a major move in another direction.

But recently, a top UK law firm represents that new direction.  Clifford Chance announced an innovative pilot program in May 2019, which delves into the merits of a concentration on billable hours as a measure of success.  Here is how a law firm executive describes the need for the study and how it will work:

While utilization is widely used as a core metric across the industry, it has a number of broadly acknowledged limitations, most notably that it does not directly incentivize efficiency or contributions to non-billable work that may be invaluable to the firm’s overall strategy and to the continued development of exceptional client service.

By running a pilot on this scale, with a large number of data points, associate input and partner and management feedback, we expect to be in a position to draw informed conclusions on the way ahead for the firm.

The year-long pilot program will consider lawyer performance based on other factors, including demonstration of knowledge, thought leadership, innovation, pro bono work, and business development.  Although lawyers will continue to record billable hours during the pilot, those numbers will be used to compare results at the end of the program and to maintain client records.

Read more here about the Clifford Chance program.  This kind of initiative is long overdue, and many of us, who care about the future of law practice and development of young lawyers into future leaders, will be very interested in the study results.

Stay tuned because you can be sure I will report them.

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Law Firms Should Follow Corporations in Looking Beyond Self-Interest

Law firm greed. 

I have been writing about the negative impact of greed in the law profession since 2016.  It was then that I first discussed how the greed manifested by large law firms is undercutting the professionalism of the business of law.  Those comments appeared in an article I penned for Corporate Counsel in its September issue that year, and I have discussed the concepts many times since in articles and remarks to legal audiences.

In essence, I argue that it was the greed of Wall Street that brought our economy to its knees in 2008, and it will be the greed of the law profession that will bring the business of law to its knees all too soon if we do not reverse course.  Reversing course will require a renewed dedication to the values of our workforce and the wellness of our law professionals, thoughtful consideration and action on specific issues of telecommuting and work-life balance, examination of the role of billable hours in determining competence and value, and use of our resources and talents to serve communities and society.

Most recently, I discussed these concepts at a law firm partnership retreat within the larger context of a discussion about what millennial lawyers want.  By building on the reality that millennial lawyers will be 75% of legal professionals by 2030 and the research that millennial lawyers desire less greed and more caring, I found my audience to be much more attentive than some audiences of the past.  Law firm managers now recognize that the future of their firms and robust succession plans lie with millennial lawyers and their millennial clients.  Numbers do not lie.

So, I was cautiously encouraged.  And then I was even more encouraged to see a reverse course from the Business Roundtable last week.  As reported in a Wall Street Journal article, leaders of some of America’s largest companies are rethinking the notion that corporate decisions should rightfully revolve around the needs and desires of shareholders.  Meaning profit to the exclusion of everything else.  Meaning greed.

So, business leaders extraordinaire, including the likes of Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase and Jeffrey Bezos of Amazon and scores of their corporate colleagues, have decided that corporate leaders should take into account all stakeholders — to include employees, customers and society at large — when making decisions about corporate direction.

The newly-formulated “Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation” begins with this sentence:

Americans deserve an economy that allows each person to succeed through hard work and creativity and to lead a life of meaning and dignity.

The new statement goes on to identify multiple obligations to support this goal, in the following order of importance:

  • Delivering value to customers.
  • Investing in employees.
  • Dealing fairly and ethically with suppliers.
  • Supporting the communities in which they work.
  • Generating long-term value for shareholders.

Some of these directives are mirror images of the arguments leveled against greed in the legal profession.  This is not surprising because law is a business, and, like other businesses, it must survive in a changing world.  Rules that worked yesterday may not work today.

Hopefully, this new view of corporate responsibility will rub off on law firm leaders who know that the clock is ticking and that the law firm leaders of tomorrow have different values and different world views.  And that those different values and world views need to be taken seriously and respected.

So much at stake.  So many watching.





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Family Planning for Women Lawyers

Last week’s blog addressed the realities of non-equity partnership.  As pointed out in that blog, there is a lot of difference between equity partnership and the increasing non-equity partnership cohort.  If you have to refresh your memory, this might be a good time to do it because family planning for women lawyers builds on some of the themes of that blog.

For example, even though non-equity partnership may not include all that women lawyers are seeking, it could be a fine landing place for them while they are trying to make motherhood and lawyering work.

When making that decision for yourself, the first thing that you have to understand is that reconciling those two roles is not just a matter of who takes on the responsibilities of childcare.  Typically that is a decision for you and your partner, but that decision is too often made on an uneven playing field.

That is because some of the important considerations going into that decision start long before you and your partner share parenting roles.  Specifically nine months before.

Once a woman becomes pregnant and is carrying a child, a strong bond develops that is not easily broken.  By the time that bond has developed over the period of gestation, the bond between mother and child is so strong that giving birth is like feeling the earth move.  It is the ultimate defining moment, and the responsibilities of that bond are not easily handed over to another — not even a partner.

At least, that is the way it worked for me and for so many women I know — Boomer Moms, Gen X Moms and, now, Millennial Moms.  Age does not seem to make a difference when it comes to the strength of the bond between mother and newborn.

As a result, often new mothers feel like they are the only ones to properly care for their babies and toddlers, especially.  Call it instinct.  Call it the bond.  Whatever you call it, the feelings are almost uncontrollable.

And these feelings do not always lend themselves to an equal division of childcare.  Although domestic partners, who both work outside the home, are sharing much more of home and childcare responsibilities today, the issues of childbearing are not shared.  They are personal to a woman — and not any less so for a woman lawyer.

So, I encourage you to read this article from addressing how women approach family planning in the legal profession.  It will give you critical information to help you make the best decisions about motherhood and your career when the time comes.

Here are some topics that are addressed there:

  • The legal profession is based upon a rewards system that values the attorney who is always at work and has few outside obligations — AND that does not describe women with family responsibilities;
  • The best time to start a family on the road to partnership;
  • The impact on a woman’s physical being during pregnancy while practicing law;
  • Whether having children effects opportunities to make partner;
  • Whether being able to work remotely “without judgment” has a bearing on making maternity/motherhood and law practice work;
  • The importance of a generous maternity leave; and
  • The importance of knowing yourself well enough to set realistic goals and make good career decisions.

Many sacrifices have been made in the careers of women lawyers for the sake of families.  In the day, I gave up my partnership for the privilege of  practicing part-time after my baby was born.  Yes, it impacted my career, but it also enriched my life.  And I never have regretted waiting longer for partnership.  It was a choice I was willing to make.

And you will have to make similar choices.  Know yourself, know the facts, and be prepared.




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