There Are Herds of Unicorns in Law Firms

By: Susan Dunlap

u·ni·corn /ˈyo͞onəˌkôrn / noun.
1: a mythical, usually white animal;
2: something unusual, rare, or unique;
3: in business, a start-up valued at one billion dollars or more.

Many Women Lawyers Feel Like A Unicorn

Prior to the pandemic, several of my clients told me that they feel like a unicorn. When I asked them “why unicorn?”, they each said they feel some version of unique, different, alone, maybe even abnormal. When asked what made them feel so unusual, they each had a different answer. 

One woman said she felt unusual because she didn’t see other lawyers struggling as much as she was with the conflicting roles of breadwinner and caregiver. She explained that while she loved her successful career, having spent years (often at great personal sacrifice) to develop mastery in her practice and attain leadership roles within her firm, she also yearned to share meaningful time with her cherished children. To her, childcare was not a time management issue, it was a deep value and a significant part of her identity. She confided that she never talked about her struggle for fear that her colleagues would interpret that as lack of commitment to work. Also, she simply had no time to talk about it because she was so busy managing both roles. She looked around her firm and assumed other women (and men) had come to terms with the conflict and that she didn’t fit in – like a unicorn.

Another said she felt unusual because she did not have children like most of the women in her practice group. Her isolation was exacerbated when others assumed she could work late or travel at the drop of a hat, often filling in for the women who had more limited schedules because of their childcare responsibilities. She carried some resentment about this because she too had interests outside of work. She never talked about her struggle because she did not want to be seen as a poor team player and she empathized with the women who were mothers. This woman did not feel like she fit in with men or women – like a unicorn.

A third woman said she felt unusual because, despite the increased number of women at her firm, she was the only woman in her practice group. Aside from being “the only”, she explained that the men in her practice group often gathered for beers with one another on Friday afternoons and watched sports together on weekends. She never complained or talked about it because she didn’t want to invite herself and, if she was honest, she really didn’t want to hang out and watch sports on a precious Sunday afternoon. This made her feel like she didn’t fit in – like a unicorn.

If feeling alone or different makes someone a unicorn, then there are herds of unicorns in law firms. So many women lawyers feel, or have felt, this struggle – even anguish. Law firms were built by and for men and are still predominately lead by men. Women who have children. Women who do not yet but want them. Women who don’t and don’t want them. Wherever women are, they are attempting to “fit in” and make sense of competing identities pulling for their attention. Most women don’t talk about how different they feel because they don’t want to reveal perceived weakness and they imagine other people have it more “together” than they do. Add the incredible pressure to bill long hours, develop business and the isolating nature of some of the work, and suddenly everyone feels like a unicorn.  

What Is Possible When Unicorns Come Together In A Herd?

Intrigued by the image of herds of unicorns, I turned to Google and typed in “herds of unicorns” to learn that the proper expression for a “herd of unicorns” is “a blessing.” It is called a blessing because seeing one unicorn is supposed to bring good luck and fortune to the gazer, ergo seeing a herd of unicorns would be a phenomenally wonderful thing, hence a blessing. This struck me as amazing. What if women lawyers who feel like unicorns unite and turn their individual journeys into a collective one? What would that look like? What would it have the power to do?

Wall Street may have answered that question for us. As you see from Webster’s 3rd definition above, a unicorn is a privately held startup company valued at over $1 billion.  In a Business Insider 2017 article, hedge fund manager Jennifer Fan writes that, when banded together, a blessing of unicorns has “the potential to transform financial and cultural norms.” What a metaphor for women in law! Realizing we’re not alone at all, but rather a vital part of a greater, wildly impressive, successful herd – we’re empowered to make systemic change. 

Feeling different or alone is very disempowering. While law firms have been changing to “accommodate” women, the financial and cultural norms have remained the same. Women will never reach parity in law firms until the system fundamentally changes and the accommodations become norms. 

The first step in changing the system is to create a new vision for financial and cultural norms that work equally well for men and women. This vision has never existed before. We are the pioneers. In order to create this vision, we have to be willing to engage in vulnerable conversations focused on re-thinking how we want to work and live, and what it means to succeed in work and life.  

A Call To Action

The pandemic has provided a unique opportunity to hold these important conversations because the system, as it stands now, simply is not sustainable for women with young children. We must re-think the system because the careers of many women lawyers are at risk unless something is done. The pandemic has also given us more experiences from which to draw as we reimagine a system that is more equitable for everyone. What have we noticed about working from home? What has worked well? What hasn’t?  

I am hopeful as I imagine a path forged by herds of unicorns, that women will be far less lonely and more powerful. As a collective force, we can co-create a work culture in which we all (women and men) want to work, raise children (or not) and enjoy our lives. 

Are you an alum of the Women’s Leadership Forum? We’d love to keep in touch with you! Request to join us in our private Facebook group, or connect with Susan on LinkedIN and send me a note that you’d like to be part of our exclusive LinkedIn group. Also follow us on Instagram for frequent reminders of WLF content!