Women, law firms and semantics

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I’m reluctant — wisely, I think — to say much about women in the private practice of law. They tell you to “write what you know,” and since I neither work in a law firm nor check off “female” on my census form, I’m doubly unqualified to say much on the subject. But I will send you to read this post by Larry Bodine that links to Working Mother magazine’s list of best law firms for women, as well as Larry’s own list of rainmaking tips for breaking the glass ceiling.

All I really want to say here is how aggravating it is that we’re still even talking about “women in law firms” as a separate subject. It’s disheartening that gender, which has zero relevance to lawyer competence, continues to require its own discussion in law firm operations. The choice of language in this discussion is telling:

  • Many firms talk about the “problem” of women in firms, as if women were the ones causing dissonance, rather than inflexible, hidebound or backward law firm cultures.
  • Many firms talk about “accommodating” women, as if women should appreciate the inconveniences to which the workplace is put in order to adapt to their presence.
  • Many firms refer to women “taking time out from their career” to have children, as if the job is the acceptable full-time pursuit and the lawyer’s decision to have a child is a little break from which the lawyer should soon return.

That efforts are underway to eliminate the difficulties many women face in law firms is a good thing. That we still even need to have the discussion, that we label it as a “women” or “accommodation” issue rather than a “firm culture” issue, and that we use language that frames the law firm as the default setting and lawyers’ priorities and interests as the aberration, is not. The “glass ceiling” will be gone the day when a lawyer’s gender is 100% immaterial to his or her ability to work in, succeed, advance, lead, and enjoy the benefits of a career in, a law firm.

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One Response to “Women, law firms and semantics”

  1. Allison Wolf

    The challenges that face women lawyers are for the most part the same as those facing other women professionals. I find it helpful to think of these challenges as a “labyrinth” as was suggested by the authors of the HBR Sept. 07 article “Women in the Labyrinth of Leadership”. There is no artificial barrier beyond which we cannot advance. Rather there are a number of obstacles and challenges that will arise throughout a career. Parenthood is just one challenge. Prevalant models of leadership are another. As are some of the personal characteristics shared by women – to generalize for a moment – lack of confidence, a tendency to under-estimate ones own strengths, and many others.

    I agree with you when you write: “That we still even need to have the discussion, that we label it as a “women” or “accommodation” issue rather than a “firm culture” issue, and that we use language that frames the law firm as the default setting and lawyers’ priorities and interests as the aberration, is not.”

    I am interested at this time in promoting a dialogue among women and men about the challenges and obstacles that can and will arise for women and developing strategies for seeing more women through the labyrinth and into positions of power. An emphasis on the development of leadership skills along with career planning and mentorship for young women lawyers are vital elements of the solution.

    Please have a look at my recent post on this topic: http://www.thelawyercoach.com/2008/rainmaking-for-women-lawyers/

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