Sunday, March 19, 2006

Let Me Count the Ways

I've been a lawyer for over 20 years, so I have seen the evolution (of sorts) of women in the law. I have also covered the spectrum in my legal career, from law clerk to associate in a big firm, to partner in a small firm and now, to running my own practice. So, I can say that I've seen the law from all sides now.

The NYT has an article on the subject, Why Do So Few Women Reach the Top of Big Law Firms?, which is an interesting read. I think everyone acknowledges that the issue exists, but identifying the underlying reason is the quandary.

As I see it, the problem of women in the law is at once very complex, yet simple in many ways.

The overriding issue is that attorneys are generally very conservative by nature. As such, firms often have a "culture" or personality that the attorneys in a particular firm must fit. The large firm in which I practiced for about 5 years was a "white shoe firm" (read that: WASP). The firm culture was very strong. I could often assess a new attorney’s prospects at the firm within a year of hiring. In most cases, ability was presumed (many came from Ivy League law schools), so the real distinction was personality. There were those people who were otherwise very good lawyers, who just weren't the right fit. You knew early on that they were not long for the firm.

At that time, the number of female attorneys at the firm was small and the number of female partners was miniscule. There was certainly a fair amount of sexual discrimination. It was a lot more blatant then. I remember the head of the litigation department (which I was a part of) announcing that a woman could never make it as a litigator -– women just weren'’t "“tough enough."” However, even beyond that, the cultural differences between men and women can make that "fit" difficult. Even for a WASPy woman from an Ivy League school. She could never match the firm culture, because that culture (at least then) expected women not to work. It was amazing to me how many of the male attorneys (especially the partners) married "“traditional"” wives. Even if the wife had a professional background, she stopped working to raise her family. It'’s just what you did. The male attorney had an all-consuming career, so he "“needed"” someone at home to take care of things. I'’m sure that mentality is less so today. But the relevant word is less, it does still exist. As I said, lawyers are very conservative.

I do believe that there is another kind of perception problem in the male/female equation that is still pervasive. I think it is a big source of the problem with women in the law. That is, many of the "“traits"” that are considered essential for a successful career in the law are not those that are seen as appropriate in a woman. If a man is “aggressive,” that is a good thing; if a woman is, she is a "“bitch."”

An example of this is described in Advancement in Public Accounting: The Effect of Gender and Personality Traits (a professional field with similar gender problems), where a woman was denied partnership despite being the top income generator in the group. As the report notes, she was described as "overbearing, too aggressive and as using foul language. Price Waterhouse granted partnership to all other 87 nominees, all of them men and some of whom had been described in exactly the same terms that provided the basis for denying partnership. It appears that even though the quality of the woman's work met the expectations for the partnership position, she was not promoted because her behavior was undesirable for a female." I think this still happens quite a bit.

Sometimes even differences in voice inflection may contribute to the problem. While a woman may be speaking in what is, for her, a normal, but firm, tone, what the male may hear is "whining" or an accusatory tenor to her voice. This can impact his interpretation of what is being said in a negative way.

Of course, another contributing factor in the difficulties faced by women in a big firms (and even not so big firms) is the time/family issue. The law is a jealous lover, it can be all consuming. This makes it difficult for anyone to "have a life," let alone a woman trying to raise a family during the crucial partnership years.

However, I also think it is somewhat an a firm mentality issue, which requires a "loyalty test." That is, firms often express the problem for women raising a family and not being able to stay on partnership track, is that they cannot be sufficiently "committed" to the firm. What is really meant by this is that the firm requires that it must come first.

If you really want to get ahead in a big firm, you have to engaged in firm politics. Part of this is showing how committed you are to the firm. Participating in various firm activities and committees is part of it, spending lots of face time at the firm, etc. For many women, especially those with families, there is no contest. Family wins in the loyalty contest. They are willing to work hard and do what it takes to get ahead, but they are not willing to pretend that the firm is the most important thing in their lives. This is translated into a lack of commitment.

As the saying goes, perception becomes reality. I remember a partner at my old firm mentoring me about how to play the game to get ahead, using that adage as advice, years ago. This perceived lack of commitment becomes the reality for many women, and therefore reflects on partnership chances down the road.

Yet, this does not hold true for everyone. There are the few good women who manage to make it (way to go, Steph), even at a big firm.

There are myraid reasons why the road to success is so hard for women in the legal profession. Some are covered in the Times article. These are just a few of my personal observations, based upon my experience and those of some of my friends and colleagues.

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