The majority of women in the legal profession will tell you that when they graduated from law school, more than half of their graduating class was female. (Both Stasia Kelly and Jackie Kim Park tell this same story in our cover article.) That is a change for the better from generations past. But, when looking at the senior ranks of law firms and in-house legal departments, the number of women who have risen to the top of the profession doesn’t approach those graduation percentages.
So, What Happens Along The Way?
This is a complicated question and the answers are loaded with the potential for over-generalization. We all, regardless of gender, make choices about our careers based on myriad professional and personal factors. Some choose family over a career; others choose to balance career aspirations with family demands. Some follow their significant other’s career path and deprioritize their own. Some make pragmatic, one-issue, financial decisions about career versus family. Indeed, how often have we heard a parent say, “It didn’t make sense. I was working to pay for child care”? Unfortunately, when we dig in with lawyers on these sensitive topics, the underlying financial and moral dilemmas that force these difficult decisions still impact women far more often than men. And, more often, women deprioritize their careers.
If that’s true, compounding the negative impact on women is the resulting reduction in the number of available role models as women look around and above them for guidance and a champion. In some organizations, unintended consequences of old systems and structures create barriers that keep women from reaching certain performance standards or reward levels. For example, our own Partner Compensation Survey has borne out that, in large law firms, origination credit is the key factor in what is a very real gender pay gap. While origination credit is hard earned by lawyers who have happy clients and who prioritize the development of a book of business, how and where origination credit is awarded can still be subject to time spent socializing and playing golf, and to inheriting clients from champions and mentors through subjective succession planning. If family demands, some societal stigma about aggressive sales, lack of resources and even some business traditions are stacked against women having equal access to client development opportunities, the originations gap at law firms is very difficult to solve.
So, we are seeing more and more women opt out of the profession before they are ready to be hired in-house or considered for partner, opt out of full-time work within the law, or opt in to a law-adjacent profession (like recruiting!) that allows them more balance and the ability to successfully keep all the plates spinning. And 2020 has made this tension clearer and more heartbreaking than it has been in decades. Women feel they are in a fight for their legal careers, and too often they feel a tremendous loss of opportunity—one that was beyond their control to prevent.
So, What Can Be Done?
To put it simply, talented women need to be promoted; in law firms and in legal departments. If we don’t see others like ourselves holding the equity partner or general counsel title, it’s hard to imagine ourselves there. Promotion, of course, must be earned. We can’t expect and don’t want women to be placed into top roles without the requisite skills. But, given the potential for unconscious biases and societal demands to be at work against women, talent can go unrecognized, unfed and unrewarded.
How do we make a more conscious and deliberate effort to “see” talented women? Organizations need to make sure women are receiving proper training and have access to professional development opportunities. Women need representation on hiring and compensation committees. Women need to be given access to mentors within their organizations and the broader profession. Mentors should be a mix of all genders and backgrounds so that mentor and mentee each benefit from expansion of their world view. If the mentors benefit from these relationships, real change can occur because they will use their power within an organization to inform new ways of knowing and doing. Indeed, mentor or not, those with power in every organization must look at the traditions and rituals that may be inhibiting or even preventing talented women from achieving recognition and success. And, difficult as it is, we need to assign the same adjectives and superlatives to talent, regardless of gender. If “assertive” is a sought-after leadership quality at the organization, can both women and men demonstrate it with the same reception? If “confident” is valued, is it valued across the board? It is too easy for the former to become “difficult” and the latter to become “arrogant” without a deliberate commitment within an organization to break down old gender norms and stereotypes. Finally, here is where recommendations for women to join affinity groups and bar associations might be germane. I’m not including them. While of course such organizations are of tremendous benefit, those endeavors require time and investment; away from family and impactful legal work. Do we require our male counterparts to join such groups to achieve and rise? I fear that, while we are at our affinity group meetings, they are busy grabbing that origination credit or leading that integral legal department initiative.
Don’t mishear me. Support systems need to be set up within an organization to help women juggle their personal and professional responsibilities. Employee resource groups are a place to start because having a group of like-minded people supporting each other can help a person feel included and like they belong within an organization. Flexible work schedules may be the most significant support an organization could offer. If a woman is a working mom or caring for elderly relatives, having the flexibility to take care of personal needs and work at more convenient times allows her to show her talent and manage her life. If 2020 has shown us anything positive, it is that face time in an office as a measure of commitment for legal professionals is an outdated construct.
What inspires me? That there are many women in the legal profession paving the way for others and leading the charge for future generations—as Stasia Kelly has done as the first female co-managing partner at DLA, as Sara Moss set out to do throughout her career and at Estee Lauder, and as Mary O’Carroll has done in her role developing legal operations. We need more who will follow in their warrior footsteps. As with diversity of all kinds at the decision-making table, women in leadership bring a different perspective. Indeed, organizations are better and stronger with female voices included, heard and rewarded at every level.