Law firms’ problem with women

The last time I wrote about women and the law, it took weeks for the flames to die down. Only a glutton for punishment would return to this topic again. Ahem.

So I’ve been collecting articles about the seemingly endless issue of the apparently insurmountable barrier to the full participation of women in law firms. Another article on that score, this one from The New York Times earlier this week, galvanized me to pull them all together and talk about them. To wit:

  • A Bleak Picture’ for Women Trying to Rise at Law Firms (The New York Times, July 24, 2017): “Women are 50.3 percent of current law school graduates, yet they still make up just under 35 percent of lawyers at law firms, [according to the 2017 Law360 Glass Ceiling Report.] Most important, their share of equity partnerships — where the highest compensation and leadership positions are lodged — remains at 20 percent and has not changed in recent years, the report found.”
  • Study Shows Gender Diversity Varies Widely Across Practice Areas (The American Lawyer, April 17, 2017): “The majority of AmLaw 200 practices have an average female head count ratio of 30 percent. Practice areas with the highest compensation and focus within Big Law, such as banking, intellectual property and litigation, had the lowest percentages of women. Women made up only 35 percent of Am Law 200 litigation departments, 31 percent of banking and taxation practices and accounted for 27 and 23 percent of IP and M&A teams, respectively, [according to a study by ALM Intelligence, Where Do We Go From Here? Big Law’s Struggle With Recruiting and Retaining Female Talent.]
  • The Gender Pay Gap for Big Law Partners: 44 Percent (Bloomberg Business of Law, Oct. 12, 2016): “Of the 2,153 [BigLaw] partners polled [by Major, Lindsey & Africa], men earned an average of $949,000 per year while women brought in $659,000. The differences in partner billing rates ($701 for men and $636 for women) and hours billed (1,703 for men and 1,632 for women) remained relatively small. But the results show women still lag behind significantly in originations, pulling in an average of $1,730,000 versus $2,590,000 for men. … Lack of credit for origination is a common complaint leveled by women in BigLaw.”

And here are a few other recent articles that have been archived at Lexis-Nexis and have thereby been hidden from the world at large:

None of this, of course, is new. When I was a legal newspaper editor 20 years ago, we were assigning articles on the discrepancies between men and women in law firms. I have to admit, if you’d asked me then whether the situation would have resolved itself, or at least improved, 20 years into the future, my optimistic younger self would have said, “Of course!”

Yet here we are, in 2017, having the same discussion, talking in the same careful way about diversity and representation and trying not to upset anyone in upper management. “It really is striking how much attention this problem is getting without any movement whatsoever,” Daniella Isaacson, a senior analyst for legal intelligence at ALI, is quoted in the AmLaw article above. Yes, it is.

I want to say two things here about causes and one about remedies.

The first point I want to make is about sexism. In almost every conversation we have about women in law firms, some folks go to great lengths to de-emphasize the role of overt, intentional sexism in law firms’ overwhelming maleness, in an effort not to offend (male) senior decision-makers. I don’t buy it. There’s an enormous amount of overt, intentional sexism in law firms, as there is in society generally. There are plenty of male lawyers who think less of their female colleagues as a group, who denigrate them (or tolerate those who do), who are fully aware that men exercise more power and make more money in their firms than women do and are perfectly fine with that. Let’s not pretend that sexism isn’t a significant contributor to women’s status in law firms. I’ve seen and heard differently, and I’m confident that you have too.

The second point I want to make is that in addition to sexism, the fundamental structure and culture of law firms relegate women to second-class status. Mark Cohen of Legal Mosaic phrased this issue succinctly and accurately: “BigLaw was architected by men for men.”

Today’s law firms were built by and for late-20th-century married white men, and everything about these firms reflects the choices, habits, preferences, and conveniences of their builders. Anyone is welcome to join these firms and experience great success — just so long as they adopt the choices, habits, preferences, and conveniences of their architects. Work long hours, glad-hand clients, immerse yourself totally in the job. Can’t manage that, because you’re pregnant or you’ve got primary home care or child-care responsibility? Too bad for you. Everyone else here can manage it just fine.

How to succeed in law firms without really trying.

The traditional law firm is more favourable to men than to women because men built it. The people who founded and built these firms enjoyed preferential status in business and society and could leave child-rearing to their domestic partners; they could walk through any door they liked and could spend all the time they wanted in the rooms on the other side. From their perspective, spending 3,500 hours a year on work and billing two-thirds of that time is normal. It’s just the way things are. If you struggled to succeed in this environment, you were the problem. If you tried to challenge the normalcy and sensibility of this environment, you were a threat. If you’ve wondered what the term “privilege” refers to (the non-legal, non-fun kind), this is an example.

So to a certain extent, calling out law firms for being unwelcoming and discouraging to women is like criticizing water for being wet. Law firms were built by and for men; so were most other businesses and organizations in the world. The great majority of other businesses and organizations, though, got over it. They decided that maintaining their default male architecture put them at a strategic disadvantage in terms of talent acquisition and market competitiveness, and they adapted. They haven’t adapted fully, not by a long shot, but most are at least trying.

Similar attempts to restructure law firms away from their “maleness,” however, have met with much less success. At the heart of law firms’ inherent inhospitability to women is the lawyer compensation system, which rewards the outlay of enormous amounts of lawyers’ time and effort, and the procurement of clients and business, above everything else. Go get clients and bill tons of hours: that’s the law firm advancement system in eight words. I and many others can speak from experience how incredibly hard it is to move law firms away from this system of valuing lawyers’ contribution. And yes, partly this is because it’s difficult to rewire any company’s reward system, at any time.

But let’s not kid ourselves: at least as important a reason is because the people who own and control the firm (80% male, most of them in their 50s and 60s) benefit directly from time- and effort-based remuneration, because they have loads of time and they have almost nothing distracting them from their efforts to go get clients and bill tons of hours.

It’s not just that this system makes these guys more money; it’s that it values them for who they are and what they do. This system affirms to them that their choices are the right choices; it vindicates and rewards them for doing things their way. It’s the mirror on the wall assuring them they’re the fairest of all. And if a side-effect of that system is to drive away by the thousands women (and men) who don’t live that life or choose those choices, well, c’est la guerre.

I promised one thing about remedies. I must tell you that I don’t have much to offer here (although happily, others do), because neither sexism nor law firm compensation systems are going to change tomorrow. But I do have an appeal to make, to any law firm lawyer who has read this far and has not stomped off feeling bruised or offended.

My appeal is this: Imagine a world in which half of all graduating lawyers are men (as is the case now), but only about one-third of your firm’s lawyers are male, and barely a fifth of your men are equity partners. Moreover, your few male lawyers are predominantly found in practice areas widely regarded as less profitable and less influential than the practice areas dominated by women. To make matters worse, your women lawyers out-earn your male lawyers by hundreds of thousands of dollars every year. Imagine further that your firm has been like this for decades.

Now ask yourself: Wouldn’t you think there was something wrong with that? If you happen to be male, sure, you’d almost certainly feel like the deck was stacked against you and your fellow men. I’m not appealing to your sense of fairness, though, but to your business instincts.

Wouldn’t you think that your firm was being hamstrung by some kind of systemic, gender-based flaw in its retention, compensation, and promotion practices? Shouldn’t simple arithmetic suggest that about half your lawyers should be men, and that maybe you’ve got a whole lot of less qualified women lawyers hanging around the office and filling out your equity ranks? Doesn’t it seem like you’re needlessly missing out on a whole bunch of great male lawyers? That somehow, you’re not getting the full benefit of what the legal talent market has to offer? And if the answer to all these questions is yes, is it really that hard to flip the scenario around the other way?

My last word on the subject to law firms is this: If you have a significant gender imbalance within your firm’s lawyer population, and especially within your firm’s equity partnership, there’s something wrong with your firm. Somewhere along the line, somewhere inside your firm, something went off the rails and crashed. You don’t have enough of the best people — you demonstrably, obviously, do not. And the reason you don’t have enough of the best people is that you are systematically driving half of them away. This isn’t normal. No matter what it might feel like to your most powerful people, if your firm is 65% male and your ownership is 80% male, your firm is fundamentally screwed up. Fix it.



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