Women-in-law has become one of the central issues facing the law profession, if you can put aside increased competition, threats to BigLaw and suchlike. Women, for instance, are twice as likely to leave their firms for something called “work/life
But, there’s much more.
A US survey of more than 17,000 law firm associates, it was women who ranked their firms far below their male counterparts for things like compensation, culture, job satisfaction.
And then there are only four per cent of the top law firms in the US with female partners.
So the figures are hardly flash.
The Washington Post has written about the crisis for women in law, says that 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.
See: The Washington Post