A 2016 study by the ABA says women are not doing well in the legal profession.
We make up just 36% of the profession and 18% of leadership in big law firms, with women exiting those traditional legal jobs for alternatives, far more often than men. Women are “failing to thrive in the profession.”
The ABA study points to four reasons why women are “behind” their male counterparts: gender stereotypes and discrimination, work-life balance and the demands of children on women, sexual harassment, and an ongoing and pervasive gender wage gap.
These are true statements, yet I disagree completely with the premise.
Just because women reject or “fail to thrive” in traditional big law jobs and leadership in big law does not mean we are “failing to thrive” in the profession. Big law was never designed for us. It was never built for women. It wasn’t even built for the modern world of today’s men or women. It was built by men for men beginning in 1899.
Instead, we need to start talking about paving a new path. Paving your own path. It hardly makes sense to bemoan in inequity in big law when we have more opportunity today than has ever existed previously. Add to that the demand for legal services currently at an all-time high, with clients easier to reach than ever before. (2022 clio trends report)
Technology, continuing legal education, mentorship, and support exists for you wherever you live as long as you have the internet. The first step to building your own path, the path that will work for you, is to reject that path that does not serve you. In fact, much of this article will be about rejecting that which does not serve you to create a career that is perfect for you. The acceptance of Zoom meetings and hearings gives you access to a larger client space for less money than we’ve ever experienced in history. The legal industry has made more changes and advancements in the last two years than they have for the past 20: and possibly the next 20. It is a wonderful time to be a woman and a wonderful time to be a lawyer. It is our time. We need only seize the opportunity in front of us.
But what about the four reasons women are “behind?” As a reminder, they are (1) gender stereotypes and discrimination, (2) work-life balance, (3) sexual harassment, and (4) the wage gender gap. I have some suggestions.
It is a wonderful time to be a woman. Women, generally speaking, have high emotional intelligence, academic achievement, we read people well, and have built networks. Women tend to be excellent listeners and we pick up on what clients want. Women understand the complexity of social dynamics. Today, these skills are what it takes to thrive professionally. Balancing the benefits of what our culture and genetics has taught us about femininity while rejecting what doesn’t serve us is the key to rejecting gender discrimination and building strong, lasting connections. While we should be embracing all of the soft skills that make us valuable we should be rejecting the tendency to take on more unpaid labor than our partners do at home or work. We should be rejecting the urge to take on people’s problems that are not ours. We should be rejecting the societal expectations that women must take on primary responsibility for childrearing and housekeeping and we should stop hiding our children and pregnancy.
I was at the Clio Conference recently and I brought my social media manager. She has a 10-month-old, and I encouraged her to bring her baby. I had previously brought two babies with me to speak at conferences when they were infants and I didn’t want to leave them overnight. I brought a nanny and my team and I enjoyed the conference. I didn’t realize this was radical. My social media manager told me of the countless women who had approached her to say they wish they would have known they could bring their babies. They simply had not gone to conferences when they had young children or they had left them at home, wishing they had not. Show up and say yes! Speak on stage when you are pregnant! Have client meetings when you are with your babies. Do not believe that you cannot be an effective lawyer and a mother. You can. At the same time, get whatever childcare you need to be an effective lawyer and professional. You may not use your children, or your lack of childcare as a reason to be a mediocre lawyer or employee.
Fair Play. Fair play is a book, game, and concept that illustrates, very specifically, how women have taken on the VAST majority of unpaid work within the home. I would bet this is true at work as well. You must reject the conditioning of society that states women should be martyrs to their home life if you expect to thrive as a professional. Your partner should participate equally. Better yet, and additionally, you should hire people to help with laundry, housework, driving kids around, etc. It is the best money you will ever spend, and it is shocking how affordable this help can be. Getting help and rejecting the idea that you must do things on your own will allow you to thrive in your profession and as a human.
Know, love and accept yourself
Many of us have been taught to be critical of ourselves in the name of humility. Reject this. It doesn’t serve you. Confidence serves you. Taking the time to understand your greatness and your unique contributions will allow you to do your best work and to thrive. It will allow you to do your best and most valuable work and get paid your best and highest wage. You cannot thrive, advocate for yourself and your clients or pave your own unique path without taking risks on yourself and having confidence in your own abilities.
Understand the financials. The financial model of law firms is not a complex one. By knowing both the market rates for attorneys like you and the relationship between the revenue you drive for the firm, along with the revenue you collect as an individual, should give you a strong understanding of your value to the organization. Also, do not be afraid to talk to your peers. Salaries and bonus information are frequently discussed, and you should not be one of the only people without that information.
There are five paths to women’s empowerment: social, educational, economic, political and psychological. You are lawyers! You have the educational and economic power. You have the ability to create social and psychological power. The patriarchy is not going to hand over power to women or minorities, but power within the profession is there for the taking.
You can out-innovate, outperform, and organize. Remember, women are so much stronger when they work together. I truly believe our psychological conditioning may be the greatest obstacle to women “thriving” in the legal profession.
We need to see that it’s okay to be a woman, a mom, a leader, an innovator and a strong ally to represent our clients. We’re not easily replaced. We don’t hide behind veils, and we don’t hide behind the shoulders of men. Our value is clear and we can’t ever forget that.