The Key to Thriving in Big Law Firms

Over the five years that I’ve offered the Women’s Leadership Forum, I’ve learned that having a sense of community and a shared sense of belonging is key to women thriving in law firms.

Neuroscience reveals a primal need to feel like we belong to a community. In fact, recent research indicates that the pain of being isolated is not too different from the pain of physical injury — our brains process social isolation as if it were a threat to survival.

Women end up feeling isolated at law firms for many reasons, such as:

  • Law firm culture is male-dominated
  • The boys club is alive and well in law firms
  • Law firm economic models do not value caregiving
  • At senior levels, women are often minorities wherever they work
  • Many women do not see people like them at the top of the law firm
  • Many women do not make time to develop personal relationships at work because of pressure to get their work done and get home to family

In WLF programs, women realize they are not alone when they find themselves among women they respect and admire, who face common challenges that they discuss openly in a trusting community.

The key word is “trusting.” A trusting community develops when women are vulnerable and tell the truth about what is difficult.  According to Robert Epstein, senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, “Vulnerability is the key to emotional bonding, without which relationships tend to feel superficial and meaningless.”

While women’s affinity groups seek to promote a sense of community, they often fail to provide an experience that fosters trust and creates real bonds. Often affinity group meetings are topical experiences, or else purely social. They do not create the feeling of we are in this together. Creating a trusting community of peers where women can be authentic and vulnerable is highly empowering. Without it, women will continue to leave law firms.

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