Large law firms are failing women lawyers

February 18

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Picture a typical female attorney and you probably envision a woman who’s empowered. She’s highly educated, trained to argue well and paid to be a self-assured advocate for her clients. Imagine that attorney works at one of the biggest law firms in the country, and your esteem of her probably even grows higher.

So why shouldn’t “Biglaw” look like a perfectly viable career to many employment-bound young women? Women are enrolled in half of law school classes and work alongside men in nearly equal numbers as associates.  And yet, women today are twice as likely as men to leave law firms for reasons like work-life balance. What’s more, in a survey of more than 17,000 law firm associates, women rated their firms’ culture, their job satisfaction and their compensation (to name just a few) much lower than their male counterparts did. This may provide some insight behind the statistic that only 4 percent of the 200 top U.S. law firms have female, firm-wide managing partners.

For a profession whose guiding tenets include equity in treatment and the elimination of bias, law is failing its women.

As an adviser to corporate women’s networks, I am hard pressed to name an industry that simultaneously has more progressive policies and yet more of an old-school culture than the large law firm environment does. You can draft as many pro-employee policies as you like, but unless women are co-creators in the firm’s strategy, they will not shape the culture. Women must hold positions―I’d argue half of them―on the influential, high-ranking committees that make everyday decisions.

Law firms also seem to suffer from homogeneity in how they tackle gender diversity. Firm leaders are known for being leery of non-lawyer consultants and advisers, which prevents their firms from breaking away from industry groupthink and adopting new styles of operating.

That’s not to say law firms haven’t done some things right. Just last month, six large firms earned a coveted spot on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list, and the majority of those firms employ more women than men. Law firms have been early adopters in terms of flex-time and part-time work arrangements. And in my experience, they tend to make a larger financial investment than other employers do in women’s networks and affinity groups. Some have even sought to eliminate wage disparity by creating lockstep compensation structures, where a cohort of associates at the same level (third years, for example) are all paid the same salary and bonus.

But within that very term—“lockstep”—lies some of the issue for large law firms. Yes, the expression conveys a uniform compensation hierarchy. But it can also convey a mindless adherence to old practices and party lines. For example, in many top law firms, partners endured a high level of suffering to get to where they are today, be it excessive work hours and travel, or outrageous demands from bosses and clients.

While many assume today’s law firm is a kinder, more humane place, that’s not necessarily the case. Ms. JD, a nonprofit that aims to support and improve the experience of female law students and lawyers, publishes first-year diaries of women in different legal environments. When one attorney at a big firm was asked what advice she’d give after her first year on the job, she wrote: “the only way to be successful is to go into the role expecting to be treated poorly”. Another narrative study showed women who graduate from law school emerge with high confidence and optimism, yet very few feel that way some years later.

Then there’s the matter of hours—not just billable hours, but the hand-yourself-over commitment that seems to be the norm in law. This is one area where many women simply can’t compete with men. In a 2012 survey of 65,000 employees, male and female respondents declared “associate attorney” the unhappiest job in America. With women still shouldering more domestic and childrearing tasks than most men, a typical law firm job begins to look impossible. One lawyer mom wrote in an honest and clearly defeated departure memo to her employer, “I have not been able to simultaneously meet the demands of career and family, so have chosen to leave private practice, and the practice of law…”

Another critical element of law’s culture is how difficult it is to uncover the hidden rules of succeeding on the job. That onus, it seems, is largely the burden of the associate. I talked with Kelly Hoey, a lawyer-turned-venture-capitalist who spent the first 10 years of her career as an associate in large law firm environments. Hoey noted that the single trickiest aspect of navigating firm culture as a woman is “finding a powerful mentor who tells you straight-out how the law firm game is played,” and then “having that strong mentor back you up when you play the game.”

Such sponsors do more than just proffer friendly advice or pound the table for your advancement. If they really trust you, they may just bequeath you their book of business. That paves the way for equity partnership, top compensation, credit for business and high-level roles on committees—all areas where women currently lag behind men. And yet, because most high-ranking sponsors are men, young women can have trouble identifying advocates in the higher echelons.

Blame it on the schadenfreude of partners who came up years ago. Or on a faulty deference for how things were done in the past that undermines firms’ new well-intentioned policies. Or on a law firm culture that is perhaps more “locked,” hierarchical and non-negotiable than we think. Yet the fact remains that expensive institutional knowledge continues walking out the door, and law firms should be doing something about it.

That law is unhappy work today has been well documented. This perception only supports the need to rethink how work gets done in law firms and then re-market this once illustrious career to future talent. After all, part of what the next generation of workers seeks in a job is mobility, diversity of tasks, flexibility and a manageable amount of stress.

Just what will it take for these big law firms to become associated with terms like “future focused,” “innovative” and “agile”?  I’ll give you a hint: It starts with engaging the women who work there.

Selena Rezvani is the author of books on women and the workplace, including “Pushback: How Smart Women Ask—And Stand Up—For What They Want.”

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