Moving Closer to True Equality in Law Firms – One Question at a Time

Last week, as part of our quest to create a collective vision of what true equality for women could look like in law firms, I invited you to think about the issue using complexity theory as the back-drop.

This week, I am asking the straight-forward question: “What do women want from their law firms, to stay and thrive at senior levels?”  What is “the ask?”

To start the discussion, I have summarized below the results of a two hour focus group I held with six women senior associates from several different AmLaw100 firms that proved both enlightening and inspiring.  Participants were given five minutes to consider the question: “Suppose you were in charge – what three things would you change?”  I encouraged them to be creative and dream big, but also assume their firms would continue providing similar services.

What do women want from their law firms, to stay and thrive at senior levels?

Several important themes emerged during the exercise.  It became clear that any meaningful solution would need to address these core concepts:

1)    Fairness

“I am willing to take longer to be promoted or to make less, in proportion to how much I work.  But I need to know there is true potential for promotion on that path.”

The lawyers interviewed placed paramount importance on being treated fairly, relative to the hours they worked and other contributions they made to client service and the firm.  They sought fairness – not necessarily equality – in work assignments, client relationship opportunities, and promotion determinations.

2)    Respect

“There is a lack of appreciation for the contributions of women lawyers.”

Feeling valued by, invested in, and a sense of belonging at one’s firm was an essential value expressed by all focus group participants.  Several times, the women lawyers described their law firms as “boys’ clubs” and themselves as “outsiders,” despite having achieved success at their respective firms.

3)    Gender Neutrality

“Men need to be engaged on these issues.  Perhaps by framing these issues more broadly (gender-neutrally), we can gain more traction.”

Focus group participants agreed that certain policies, such as reduced-hour tracks and parental leave, cannot be truly successful if they continue to be viewed as “the girl option.”  Gender-neutral options – available to all lawyers and truly free of stigma and penalty in practice – were viewed as the ideal solution.

4)    Transparency

“Women are not brought into the inner-circles of decision-making.”

Transparency was cited as a critical way to ensure a firm’s policies and practices are fair and unbiased, as applied.  For example, reduced-hour agreements should be made public within the firm, along with generic policies; differences in hourly expectations by practice group could be stated explicitly, with justifications; and client succession planning could undergo mandatory processes that ensure accountability.

5)    Less Hours

“Many of the solutions are based on valuing time differently.  This makes sense, as time is the critical metric used by firms to determine pay and advancement.”

Repeatedly, participants insisted that law firms must figure out a viable reduced-hours option, in order to keep good lawyers.  Many women (and men) lawyers want to continue in their careers, but are unwilling to spend every waking hour working.  As hourly demands continue to increase, a “less work for less pay” option is essential to retaining top talent.  Several of the proposed solutions involved reducing or crediting non-billable work.

6)    Representative Leadership

“I decided to take another career path because I did not see any partner – male or female – whose life I wanted.  The firm life seems very unhealthy to me.”

When discussing women in firm leadership, focus group participants lamented the absence of women “like them” in such positions.  Several shared the perception that women in leadership positions at their firms often were the ones “most like the men,” not ones likely to represent the concerns of other women.

7)    Firm Engagement

“Firms need to quit asking women to change.  Firms need to change too.”

On the topic of retaining and advancing women, firm engagement is critical.  Generally, focus group participants regarded firm leaders as well intentioned, but too busy and over-extended to deal with issues effectively.  Participants were impressed by how quickly they arrived at concrete, achievable solutions during the two-hour focus group.  They were hopeful that with some targeted work, firms could do the same.

Do any of these themes resonate with you?   Perhaps some (or all!) do.   But what really stands out to me is  an even bigger point – on the one hand how simple these solutions appear on the surface AND how complex they really are to implement.  Each factor described is essential AND carries with it many very complicated obstacles.  Hence the need for deeper, more specific conversation.

This week, I’d love to hear YOUR thoughts on these seven themes and any of the questions and discussions you have been having on this topic.  Take the five-minute challenge!  Choose one of the questions you have been developing with your cohort / other peers since last week, and see what ideas come up in a five – ten minute discussion.  Share your thoughts on the experience, along with the specific ideas that emerge in your discussion, so we can continue to build a collective, concrete vision for women lawyers in 2018.

Next Up:  A new perspective on bias.

Are you an alumni of the Women’s Leadership Forum? I’d love for you to keep in touch with the WLF community. Request to join us in our private Facebook group here, or connect with me on LinkedIN here and send me a note that you’d like to be part of our exclusive LinkedIn group.

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