Predictions about a Possible Recession and What it Will Mean for Young Lawyers

The talk these days is all about recession. This year, the year after, whenever …… the possibility has everybody concerned. The Feds are trying to get the economy under control to fend off that result, but that is not giving comfort to a lot of people.

Lawyers are no different than the rest of the people. Lawyers also are concerned, especially lawyers at the bottom of the pyramid, who lack a lot of experience and might be considered expendable by management. And there is little comfort in the experience of the last recession when law firms laid off so many newbie lawyers during 2007, 2008 and 2009. Shedding capacity in this way also affected those in law school at the time, who were about to become part of the excess. I recall counseling law students in 2008 and 2009 to get a side job and take an extra year in law school to avoid graduation during a dreadful job market. It turned out to be good advice.

But coming up with good advice as we face another possible or even probable recession of some magnitude is not easy. I have had my eye out for indicators of how it will play out for young lawyers, and finally I have found something to pass on to you from a recent Above The Law article. That article draws on comments made to the American Lawyer by a Big Law business development officer, who drew on the experience of the past recession in predicting behaviors by Big Law in the immediate future.

His prediction is that law firms, especially large law firms, will be very reluctant to repeat lay-off policies from the 2008 recession because those policies left them with leveraging shortages and a “bubble in their associate ranks that was hard to close.” Rather, he predicts that natural attrition will address enough of the reduced demand to avoid a staffing “catastophe in the future.”

But it was the rest of his prediction that really got my attention. He also claims that some firms are considering opening up equity partnerships to attract and retain talent during these uncertain times.

Now, that is news worthy.

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Closing the Gender Pay Equity Gap

Most of you know that there is a gender pay gap for lawyers in our country. Simply speaking, women lawyers fall significantly behind men in terms of compensation, especially in large law firms. In Big Law, the gender pay gap widens as lawyers climb the experience ladder, and women lawyers continue to struggle to get full credit for their work or suffer setbacks for having children. These issues, and what to do about them, were explored recently in a Bloomberg Law article, and the information, especially the historical data, are worthy of your attention.

And that is true whether you are a male or female lawyer. Women have a vested interest that is obvious. Men have an interest because losing the talent of women due to issues of inequity will impact them as well.

Although men and women start off on equal footing in terms of compensation, the gap begins to widen at the partner level where women make up only 22% of equity partners and earn only 78% of what men make. These figures are supported by surveys conducted by the National Association of Women Lawyers, and the figures have not changed much in the last decade.

The challenge is what to do about it. As pointed out in the article, people who make compensation and related decisions at firms think they are being fair, and most of them want to be fair. But the statistics tell a different story.

All kinds of unfair assumptions are made about women lawyers. It is assumed that they will have children, and it is assumed that they will no longer want to work once they have children. And it is assumed that if they have children and keep on working, they will not be as serious about their professional lives. As a result, those women start to get fewer opportunities in terms of cases and face time with important clients.

Annual reviews, which determine both salary and bonuses, are another problem. Those reviews start with self evaluations, something women historically do not excel at. Women are typically not comfortable bragging about their accomplishments or misrepresenting their expertise, and that puts them at a disadvantage in the review process. If firms are going to value big personalities as much as work product, many women will not be able to compete.

But it is origination credit where the rubber hits the road. It is the biggest factor in determining compensation and promotions at most law firms, and it derives from being given the opportunities that will lead to having responsibilities for clients. If the work is for institutional clients, and a senior lawyer holds the origination, origination credit for both junior male and female lawyers can be a long time in coming. And significant origination credit is how a lawyer gets through the gate to equity partner, and that is where the money is.

Today, however, there is some sign of change in the air. That change is coming from clients, who want assurances of pay equity among their lawyers. And the number one new question from clients has to do with origination credit. That is progress, but if women are not among those at the firm making decisions on compensation and promotion matters, real change may be elusive. And because women lag far behind men in terms of firm management and leadership positions, there is arguably inherent bias on compensation committees.

It is clear that significant and lasting change needs to come from within. Law firms need to recognize that their processes have not been transparent to date, and they need to do something about it. Lack of transparency and taboos about discussing compensation render junior lawyers powerless.

Specifically, as the article discusses, law firms need to start auditing compensation decisions and looking for outliers. Formulas need to include more than just billable hours and receivables, and variables in billing rates need to become part of the evaluation. And law firms must be on the lookout for biases like those that favor “big law firm personalities” that hold women back. Not just women as a group, but individual women.

What is fair is fair. But it is complicated.

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The Elusiveness of Work-Life Balance for Young Lawyers

I have written for years about the elusiveness of work-life balance, including an entire book about it for women lawyers.  That book was published in 2012, and here is a very recent article echoing many of those same themes. The search for balance is a never-ending process.

Work-life balance is not accomplished in the knowing. It is accomplished in the execution.  Only YOU can define a healthy work-life balance for YOU.

Sometimes your emphasis has to be more on the personal side, and sometime your balance needs to be more on the professional side.  You don’t measure it on a day-to-day basis. You measure it over time.  That is the only balance that is real.

I often hear young women lawyers complain that the balance is not being “assured” for them by the profession.  They get angry when it is suggested that they have to keep their eyes on both sides of the scale.  They become offended when they hear about the pitfalls of the profession for lawyer/mothers in particular, and they feel slighted.  

It does not matter how many times they are told, “You are smart. You are capable of multi-tasking. You’ve got this.”  The emphasis continues to be on the perceived slight. What they miss is that the advice is being shared to make them stronger and more successful.  

They are not being told to ignore their family responsibilities or other important aspects of their personal lives. But they also are not being told that life is fair every day of the week or every week of the month or every month of the year either.  The law is a tough and demanding profession, and it includes sacrifices that do not always feel good.

Some days will feel like hell, in fact, but other days will be so exhilarating that a lawyer/mom actually can feel like she does have it all — a combination of the children who light up her life and a profession that both challenges and compensates her in a way that allows for a better life for her children.

Do not resent those who are trying to help you. Focus on the work-life management that is being suggested in this recent article and understand that you have the power to bring about a satisfactory solution for YOU. The article rightly suggests that “We deserve more than balance. We deserve to be honest and respectful of ourselves.” 

Honesty and respect for yourself will come from within yourself. It is the first step. Identifying your priorities and your goals are key. Those will dictate the balance that works for you.

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Young Lawyers Need to Embrace Mistakes as Opportunities

The great jazz legend Miles Davis once said, “If you hit a wrong note, it’s the next note that determines if it’s good or bad.” Like all great jazz musicians, Davis was a master of improvisation. As such, he saw musical mistakes as opportunities — a philosophy he carried into the rest of his life.

Miles Davis’ words provide a valuable lesson. It’s how we react to so-called mistakes that determine whether the ultimate outcome will be negative or positive. As the great jazz pianist Herbie Hancock said, “Miles was able to turn something that was wrong into something that was right.” 

I play the piano, but I never took music theory seriously. I wish I had because it would make a recovery like Davis envisioned so much easier when I hit the wrong keys and start down the road to dissonance. Music theory teaches you how chords and notes relate to one another and how taking that next step from mistake to recovery is possible and creative.

You don’t have to be a musician to understand this. It is a theme that presents itself in so many different settings throughout our lives. Not dwelling on past mistakes and taking advantage of the opportunities presented by those mistakes is useful in all of those life experiences, including the practice of law.

Ask any seasoned lawyer and he or she will tell you that it was the mistakes that taught them the most. They learned to rebound and never forgot how that mistake was made and to avoid making it again. They grew as practitioners.

I hope that you will have those same opportunities and that you will embrace them. It will accelerate your success and your tolerance for the mistakes of others. It will make you a better lawyer and a better mentor. It will make you a better leader and a better person.

There is simply nothing to lose and so much to gain.

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How are Women Lawyers Advancing?

Just when I start thinking that progress is being made in the advancement of women lawyers, I get hit with new information that sets me back on my heels. I have been advocating for women lawyers for more than 40 years and most significantly for over 15 of those years as the founder of the Best Friends at the Bar project. It has been my great pleasure to promote women lawyers, but it also has been frustrating. Knowing that women lawyers are every bit as competent as male lawyers, and then reading survey information demonstrating disparities in the advancements of these two groups, adds significantly to that frustration.

I always want to be certain that I trust the sources of the information that is being reported. The most recent information comes from a report from the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL), a group which I have collaborated with in the past, and is summarized in an article by Vivia Chen in Bloomberg Law, a journalist who I admire for her thorough research, objectivity and honesty. So, I have confidence in the information reported.

The NAWL report is based on analyses of responses from 75 firms in the AmLaw 200. The bottom line, as summarized in Bloomberg Law, is that “women rarely break into the top 10 club of the most highly compensated members of the firm [and] women represent only 22% of equity partners.” We know that the equity partner figure has been hovering near that percentage for almost a decade, so that is not very encouraging.

The most shocking figure reported by NAWL is that, although the law firms surveyed are aware of these issues and are addressing them in pretty “sophisticated” ways — like removing gender biases in compensation and performance reviews — the advancement numbers have not budged much. Frustrating, for sure.

Read more about the NAWL report and the suggestions for firms to help hasten the advancement of women lawyers. Surely there remain reasons to be hopeful, but, basically, I see this as a bummer moment. Can’t help it.

Click here for the Bloomberg Law article.

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Setting the Record Straight: Women Lawyers Did Not Bail Out of Their Careers in Large Numbers During the Pandemic

It is true that women lawyers were among those who left the profession over the past two years because quality childcare was not available during the threat from COVID-19 when quality daycare centers and schools were closed.  Although many legal commenters and legal consultant groups stressed very high attrition rates for women lawyers due to these circumstances, I was very pleased to see one the most reliable legal commenters, Vivia Chen of Bloomberg News, jump into the conversation recently to set the record straight.

In making her case against the oft-repeated narrative that, when push comes to shove, women bail out of their careers, Ms. Chen cites the most recent statistics supporting the conclusion that women remained in the workforce during the pandemic and stayed on their jobs, as much as they could and persevered.  Reporting additional statistics showing that those in the most privileged positions were able to keep their careers going, Ms. Chen concluded that most female lawyers “stayed in the game.”  They may have left large firms for a downsized version that afforded more flexibility or transitioned within the profession, but they did not leave in large numbers.  They did not quit in high numbers as had been reported earlier. They did not run for cover. For more on this article, read it at

 Indeed, there are challenges for women lawyers and male lawyers as well, especially those with young children.  But young lawyers should not let their career planning be derailed by them.  Young lawyers are smart and capable of protecting both their personal and professional goals, and the advent of programs like flexible hours, working from home, and changing law practice cultures are giving them the additional help they need.

It is all possible.  Not easy.  But possible.

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In Appreciation for the Life of Madeleine Albright

Those who have heard me speak or have read my books will recognize this quote, “There is a place reserved in Hell for women who do not help other women.” I refer to it often because it embodies so much of what I believe about women lawyers and their responsibilities to one another.

The woman responsible for those words died recently. Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State, was a force, who never forgot where she came from and who had supported her. In response, she reached out helping hands to so many people in her life — especially women.

I met Secretary Albright a few years ago and discussed her famous quote with her. She completely understood the applicability of her words to the legal profession. She and I lamented the still-existing practice of some established women lawyers to pull the ladder up after they have reached the top. Known as the “Queen Bees,” they have done so much harm to the progress of young women lawyers. As I have written recently, the only good news is that most of them are retired or will be retiring soon. I hope that ends the reign of their negative influence.

Here is the link to an article written about Secretary Albright from someone who knew her well and benefited from her kindness and her support. It is worth the read.

I am thankful for the life and example of Madeleine Albright and the inspiration she was to my work. May she rest in peace.

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Time for Law Firms to Have Some Fun

March Madness is upon us once again. It has been a time for celebrating the underdog and the perennial amazement at the performance of the Big Dogs.

I look so forward to this competition every year. I never played basketball, but many of my friends and family did. However, I am a devoted sports fan, and I particularly love watching college basketball and lacrosse. There is a lot of similarity of plan and play, I think.

Law firms also get into March Madness. There are pools and side bets and lots of postering and mock rivalries in the hallways of firms large and small.

This is good. It is needed. It allows lawyers, young and old, to relate on a whole other level and in very different way. They like it — even the ones who know nothing about the game and have a friend or spouse fill out their brackets. They support their undergraduate colleges and universities like they were casting the deciding votes on the Supreme Court. It is important to them. And it is fun.

But, why should this kind of positive and sometimes affectionate interaction be a one-off annual experience? Why shouldn’t law firms aim for this more often and with a variety of events. All work and no play makes not only for dull but also unhappy and disillusioned lawyers.

Young lawyers can make efforts to improve these conditions. A little suggestion here or there and initiative need to come from the bottom. If you have not noticed, the top is preoccupied.

Happy Final Four! I will be watching. Hope to “see” you there — having fun.

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