Yesterday, the New York Times published a comprehensive piece by Timothy L. O'Brien examining why there are so few women at the highest ranks of the major law firms. The Times has developed a deservedly poor reputation in the feminist blogosphere due to the anti-feminist editorializing of columnists like John Tierney, David Brooks, and Maureen Dowd. This piece, however, did not in any way patronize women or question the validity of some women's aspirations to high-powered positions in the legal world. Indeed, the article highlights arguments that law firm partnerships can be wonderful things for the women who aspire to them, and that law firms benefit when they retain and promote talented women. (Hat tip to A Pang for bringing this article to my attention!)
The article posits eight different factors that combine to make it difficult for women to ascend to the highest ranks of law firms. In this series of posts, I will comment on each of the eight factors in light of my own experience as a woman in the legal profession. I should note, however, that since I am only one individual, my experience is not at all representative. I graduated from law school almost (gulp) nine years ago, and got myself into the courtroom on a near-daily basis right away by taking a job as a criminal prosecutor. I had tried approximately fifty trials (most of them jury trials) by myself before I joined a private law firm almost four years ago. I am used to trying cases against lawyers with 10, 20, or 25 years more experience than I. Also, because criminal cases go to trial much more frequently than civil cases, I have actually tried more cases than many people who are lot more senior to me in my law firm. Thus, my public sector experience has imbued me with a lot more assertiveness with the higher-ups than I would probably have if I had started at a law firm right out of law school.
The article notes that only 17% of partners at "major law firms" are women. I am not sure how the author defines a "major law firm" but I assume that term refers to the largest and most lucrative law firms. I doubt that I work at what would be considered a "major law firm." I started out working at a 30-attorney firm. Now I work at an 80-attorney firm that is the largest in my state, but hardly a "major firm" compared to the powerhouses in big cities like New York, D.C., L.A., Chicago, Boston, etc. I should also note that since I am a litigator, I don't have much to say about corporate or transactional attorneys.
Without further ado, the following are the factors identified in the article as hindering women's advancement in the private sector of the legal profession, starting in this post with the issues of mentoring and networking:
1) Mentoring The article notes that young lawyers of both sexes get sub-standard mentoring in large firms. This is a product, in my view, of two factors. One, the pressure to spend time on billable hours -- matters that can be billed to clients -- provides a disincentive for more senior attorneys to spend time nurturing and guiding junior attorneys. Two, because most civil matters tend to settle these days, there are very few opportunities for young lawyers to get courtroom experience.
Nonetheless, at least one source in the article contends that male associates are far more likely to be mentored by higher-ups than female associates. There is some speculation in the article that this may have to do with the fear by male higher ups that they will appear to be flirting with or coming on to the younger female associates. Also this fear goes both ways. Female lawyers say, "[W]hy is a woman who hunts down her male boss for a chat seen as overly aggressive or possibly flirtatious, while a male doing the same thing is seen as merely ambitious?"
Personally, I have been very fortunate in having excellent mentors all the way through my career-- including the female District Attorney who was my boss for many years, a number of male mentors at my first law firm, and a wonderful male mentor at my current firm. All of these people have been extremely generous with their time. I have never had the sense that any of the men were worried about seeming "too close" to me because I am a woman. My positive working relationships with these people resulted in part from my assertiveness in going to them and asking questions and volunteering for assignments. I have to say it never once crossed my mind that anyone would perceive my assertiveness as inappropriate because of my gender. As I have noted in the past, this is one area where I think being "ambi-social" (a term I've coined to indicate a feeling of social comfort with both sexes) is very important.
That having been said, I have two observations: I don't doubt that the fear of being perceived to be engaging in inappropriate or flirtatious sexual conduct IS a barrier for senior men and junior women who might otherwise have productive professional relationships with each other. One area where I think this fear becomes particularly acute is in the area of business travel. After I gave an anti-harassment training at one law firm (in my capacity as an employment litigator), a number of men confided in me that they would hesitate to invite a female associate on a business trip (an out-of-town deposition for example) because they would worry about potential awkwardness. Female associates I questioned admitted that they, in turn, would hesitate to suggest that they participate in out-of-town business travel for fear of awkwardnes or of alienating the men's wives.
I am not sure what the solution to this awkwardness is -- but I would certainly recommend that women make a conscious decision not to worry about it. Make a deliberate decision to be more assertive and keep your demeanor business-like and matter-of-fact. I generally charge ahead assuming that we are all grown-up professionals and that therefore sex is not an issue! As for the men, I stress at the trainings I do that it is crucial not to let efforts to avoid harassment turn into discrimination. Again, a business-like demeanor and an assumption that sex is absolutely not an issue are crucial on both sides!
2) Networking Networking is an important issue because a large component of success in a law firm is the ability to generate business by gaining clients and retaining repeat clients. A large part of gaining and retaining clients involves developing strong social relationships with them. This can be hard if you're a woman and the clients are men. It can be awkward to go out to dinner or drinks with an opposite-sex client. Also, a lot of firm-client socializing involves attending sporting events or playing golf.
On the bright side, I would note that networking is far from impossible for women. First of all, a lot of client pools are actually female dominated. Many law firm lawyers defend people in civil cases under their insurance policies. The adjuster at the insurance company decides what lawyer to hire. I don't know the statistics, but many, if not most, insurance adjusters are women. Unfortunately, insurance companies pay the lowest rates of any kind of client. So if your law firm judges you on the amount of revenue you bring in, insurance defense may be a difficult bet because the rates are lower and therefore, you have to work longer hours to compete with the higher paid commercial attorneys. This need to work longer hours, however, can be difficult if you are a working mother who is shouldering a lot of responsibility at home as well as at the office.
Another female-dominated client base are Human Resources Managers for large companies. HR managers often make the hiring decisions when they need employment attorneys to defend the company against discrimination, harassment, or wrongful termination claims, or when they need attorneys to help conduct anti-discrimination training, draft employment policies, or figure out how to comply with various federal and state employment laws in particular cases. This is fairly high-paying work and therefore it is desirable work in terms of trying to advance in a law firm.
Nonetheless, the very highest paid work for litigators is commercial litigation. Corporate transactional (non-litigation) work on behalf of companies is, I think, even higher paid still. The higher paying work you get, the more money you bring in, the greater your chances of advancement in the law firm. Unfortunately, this most desirable client base of corporate decisionmakers tends, based on my observation, to be primarily male. Therefore, I think it is fair to say that male attorneys have an advantage in terms of networking because they are networking primarily with their own sex when trying to win the highest paying and most desirable clients.
Still, it is important to remember that social networking is only one piece of the puzzle and, also, I don't think that it's impossible for women lawyers to network socially among a male-dominated client base. First, I think there are two things that are more valuable than social networking. One thing is making your professional competence known among your client base. You can do that by getting speaking engagements at conferences (or hosting your own conferences at your law firm), publishing articles in industry publications, and publishing their own law firm newsletters on topics of interest to your clients. Another thing is to make sure that you are easy to work with. Once you get a case, make sure that you always keep your client up to date on what is going on, respond to phone calls and emails promptly, and be sensitive to your client's concerns, whatever they may be. Working on a case with a client is one way to generate a strong social bond with the client-- just by talking on the phone about the case, attending depositions and mediations together. Social skills, like humor and showing an interest in the other person, go a long way here. The client is always going to want to work with someone who is pleasant to work with rather than someone who is not.
I should note that I can't claim to be a rainmaker yet, but I was recruited to my current position because of the strong reputation I have among police departments in my state from my time as a criminal prosecutor. (I now represent police departments in civil suits.) The cops want me to represent them because of how I treated them when I was a prosecutor: (a) I always kept them informed and took their opinions into account; (b) I developed friendly and jokey relationships with a lot of them and I always asked about their families (I feel like I spend half my life looking at pictures of cops' children!); (c) they perceive me as not being afraid to take a case to trial; and (d) I would hang out with them in professional settings, like law enforcement conferences, or more recently, by participating in use of force training with them. While my situation may be unusual, my broader point is that there are other ways to get your name out there than going to football games or playing golf.
While social networking is not the be-all and end-all, it is also important to remember that social networking with a male client base is not impossible. After all, who says you can't go to a football game or play golf or hang out with your male clients just because you're a woman? My marketing emphasis isn't on socializing so much, but I will socialize in groups with my male clients (one-on-one, especially after hours, is a little wierd, so I don't recommend it), and I have been known to go to baseball games with my practice group and our clients.
But I don't try to pretend to be someone I am not. I don't follow professional sports -- other than a very vague interest in hockey -- and so I don't try to talk sports with male clients. There are plenty of other ways to relate other than sports talk. And there is no way you will ever get me to play golf. I figure it's far preferable to avoid playing golf than to flail around looking incompetent on the golf course.
That having been said, I was somewhat disturbed last year when my practice group was going to sponsor a team at a local golf tournament. My male mentor automatically designated my male colleague and not me to play in the foursome we were sponsoring--despite the fact that my male mentor had no idea whether I can play golf or not. I didn't protest because the truth is that I can't play golf (whole 'nother post coming up someday about not having any opportunity to develop athletic competence as a kid). My solution was to invite myself to the post-tournament cocktail party (I may not be able to play golf but I am quite capable of downing a cocktail and eating finger foods!) While it wasn't a big deal in the big scheme of things for me, I think that women lawyers being left out of sports-related events can be a major problem.
Those are just the first two factors. I'll pick this up tomorrow with a discussion of the remaining factors that may inhibit women's success in major law firms:
3) Arbitrary male control of key management committees
4) Isolation of women at law firms as they rise through the ranks while other women leave
5) Women being held to a higher standard, or stereotypes about women's alleged lack of aggression
6) Difficulties women have with self-promotion and making demands of their employers
7) The "maternal" wall, or the assumption that women will be less willing or able to work hard once they have children
8) The law firm emphasis on billable hours and the difficulties this poses for women with children.