Inspiring And Empowering Women To Achieve Success In Legal Profession

Editor: Does the glass ceiling still exist?

Yes. Women continue to face barriers to advancement in the legal profession. The most frequently cited obstacles are work/life balance issues, difficulties with practice development, lack of mentors, unequal access to leadership development, work assignment disparities, law firm culture, lack of positive role models, sexual harassment, and bias and discrimination in things like pay and promotion standards.

Editor: How does the Commission help shatter the glass ceiling?

Formed in 1987, the Commission strives to be an effective and powerful advocate for positive change in the legal workplace and the national voice for women lawyers. We promote gender equality by inspiring and empowering women to achieve success in all sectors of the profession, and developing numerous programs, policies, and publications to advance and highlight the achievements of women lawyers.
One of our boldest steps yet is the "Managing Partner and General Counsel Leadership Summit - Progress, Success and Achievement for Women in Law" on May 24-25 in New York. This invitation-only event brings CEO's, general counsel from the Fortune 500, and law firm managing partners into the same room to tackle the barriers women attorneys encounter in their advancement to leadership positions. We hope this gathering of the leaders of the profession can collectively accomplish a category change in terms of measurable progress in gender equality.

Editor: Why should a legal employer care about gender equality at all levels of the profession?

Women's skills, experiences and perspectives enrich the profession and enhance its ability to serve a more and more diverse society. Together, women and men provide the strongest combination of talents - encompassing a far greater variety of attitudes, styles and approaches than are contained within one gender alone. In addition, clients and juries often respond favorably when lawyers are more reflective of society's diversity. Moreover, customer-driven imperatives have made diversity a high priority for an increasing number of corporations, and that priority is reflected in the legal arena also.
Currently 49% of new law graduates are female, and that percentage is growing steadily. By 2010, approximately 40% of the profession will be female (compared to 29% today). Law firms and other employers need to understand how to recruit and retain the best talent - male and female - to thrive in our competitive marketplace.

Editor: Why is addressing issues to achieve a good work/life balance important?

Today's law school graduates, both men and women, often come right out and say that they want to have a life. Women lawyers know that their career building years are on a direct collision course with their biologically determined childrearing years. They, as well as many men, bemoan the tyranny of the billable hour system - not just the number of hours, but the requirement of physically being in the office so many hours of the day. Yet increasingly, the paradigm of being physically seen is outdated in the world of instantaneous, interconnected technology.

Ironically, while the majority of firms have policies permitting flexible schedules, part-time work and family leave, few employees feel comfortable using them. Attorneys say they fear that they will be viewed as less committed to the firm or their work. They may get poor assignments or be hampered in their ability to get promotions. Unless eliminated, these powerful disincentives will thwart the intended purpose of a firm's otherwise well crafted policies.

In a survey of 1400 lawyers by our Commission called Balanced Lives: Changing the Culture of Legal Practice, both men and women reported work/life conflicts. Practical suggestions for addressing work/life conflicts can be found in the article entitled Balanced Hours: Effective Part-time Policies for Washington Law Firms - A Project for Attorney Retention by Joan Williams of American University School of Law. The significance of this issue in recruiting is clear: one third of men and two thirds of women reported that work/life balance is one of their top three reasons for choosing their current employer.

People vote with their feet, both coming in and leaving. When an attorney departs prematurely, the firm loses on its return on investment: it faces an initial productivity loss, recruiting time and costs, dealing with clients who now have to break in someone new, productivity loss again while the new hire gets up to speed, low morale among remaining attorneys, and other costs. Williams's report says that losing a woman associate in her second or third year may cost the firm in the range of $200,000 to $280,000. In addition, lawyers leaving on a negative note are not necessarily going to refer business back to that firm.
For reasons of economic, practical and demographic common sense - as well as improving morale and increasing productivity - legal employers should eliminate the barriers to achieving a good work/life balance.

Editor: How can an employer help its lawyers achieve their fullest potential?

One way is to help them to learn how to generate business. Women, especially women of color, are at a particular disadvantage. They may lack business contacts, so they are unable to jump start their careers in ways that those with preexisting family business relationships can. Also, many women have been raised to be collaborative team players and are uncomfortable drawing attention to or marketing themselves. Since law schools don't teach this, employers need to provide targeted training so that attorneys can develop the requisite skills and confidence and find the opportunities to build and sustain a strong client base.

Beyond business development, employers should be on the lookout to identify potential leaders and prepare them for roles in leadership and governance. At present, only 16% of law firm partners are women, and only 4% of managing partners are women. The leadership playing field is not yet level. To counteract this situation, law firms can seek out women lawyers and give them assignments on important committees and special projects where they can have visibility, influence, and access to established leaders from whom they can learn.

Like me, a lot of lawyers benefit from being adjunct professors. This is just one of the many ways to develop valuable experience, confidence and communication skills. Giving people a chance to participate in a variety of programs within the firm and through external organizations can be a great way to develop leaders.

Editor: What role do mentors play?

Mentors are critically important in helping lawyers achieve their fullest potential. Sadly, women repeatedly cite their lack of mentors as a major handicap. In the absence of some champion mentors, I never could have achieved some of the incredible opportunities I've enjoyed in my career. I am eternally grateful for the many doors my mentors opened up for me - including my last three jobs. Our newest publication, Empowerment and Leadership, contains a wealth of information on the significance of mentoring and access to informal networks.

Editor: Where else is work needed?

Legal employers need to make sure that assignments are made in a gender neutral way so that women are not assigned to the "pink ghetto" of cases that won't lead to promotion or success. Men and women need an equal chance to work on challenging cases with good clients and to be given high quality, prompt feedback.

In a male oriented culture, women can be disadvantaged when it comes to the definitions of success. Top leadership should review what is being rewarded to ensure that definitions of success are gender neutral, that criteria are fair and equitably applied.

Sexual harassment still exists. Studies show that 75 percent of women lawyers say sexual harassment is a problem in the workplace. One half to two thirds say that they have either directly experienced it or observed it. Because lodging a complaint can be destructive to their careers, many women do not formally report sexual harassment, which can then adversely affect performance, morale, productivity, physical and mental health, and retention.

Editor: What resources are available to help address bias and discrimination?

One of my favorite publications is our Commission's Fair Measure: Toward Effective Attorney Evaluation. It identifies how men and women are not always rated the same way in appraisals - even for the same behavior and the same result. It also offers suggestions on how to correct discriminatory standards or effects.

I also recommend Sex-Based Harassment: Workplace Policies for the Legal Profession, which addresses this problem frankly and constructively. Finally, The Unfinished Agenda describes key issues confronting women lawyers and strategies to overcome the obstacles in their career paths.

Editor: Among your many contributions to the profession, Jim Silkenat of Arent Fox told us that you were the key note speaker at a recent luncheon hosted by the Fellows of the American Bar Foundation in New York. Would you encourage other women to contribute to the profession?

Absolutely. Many benefits flowed to me, personally as well as professionally as a direct result of my active involvement in professional associations. At one time, I was serving concurrently on 17 boards, committees and commissions of various state, local, national, women and minority bar associations and civic groups! I am grateful to my employers who encouraged my participation. I have been fortunate to have my voice heard on issues that are important to me - especially gender equality, opportunities for minorities, improving the justice system, and access to legal education. In my view, if you see that things need improvement, you need to step in. Our contributions as leaders are important not only for our profession, but also for society at large.

Editor: Where can our readersl earn more about the ABA Commissionon Women in the Profession?

For information about the Commission's upcoming events, publications, research initiatives, advocacy efforts and other activities and resources, please visit our web site at

Published May 1, 2004.