EditorSolicitors Journal

Stop fixing women: make law firms gender bilingual

Stop fixing women: make law firms gender bilingual

By Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, CEO, 20-First

In the world’s top law firms, the average gender balance among partners is around 85/15 men to women. This is despite the fact that women have been the majority of law school graduates for many years.

How long will these firms be able to defend their much-vaunted claims to recruiting and promoting ‘only the very best’ when they are increasingly promoting from a fast-shrinking minority of the educated talent pool?

Firms are beginning to feel a growing pressure from their clients. Many of the women who left law firms over the past decades (realising they would never make partner) have gone into corporate legal departments. Ironically, they have now become clients. These corporate clients may not much appreciate the all-male teams being sent in to advise them.

The attempts of many law firms are well-meaning but inefficient. They are trying to apply a band-aid to an issue that calls for a systemic adaptation to today’s talent realities. While partnerships like to think of themselves as networks of knowledge workers in a service economy, they are in truth some of the most rigid hierarchies in business.

The single-model career path and relentless up-or-out cultures in law firms’ highly homogeneous business models will never become more gender balanced until the model itself evolves. Yet nowhere else in the business world do the people who currently lead the system have less interest in its evolution. In fact, they are clearly invested in the status quo.

The partnership model is based on a pyramid structure. A very small group of expensive partners have clambered up a difficult path, largely based on 24/7 commitment to slaving away in service of a senior partner. Once a small minority are, in their turn, finally appointed partner, their remuneration is dependent on the productivity of every lawyer below them. The idea of adapting the model to accommodate women is laughable. At least while they can still find men ready to do what they did.

Most of these partners may truly believe that women aren’t making it to partner because of something they lack (time, competence and style). Many managers in companies believe the same. They are still asking a 20th century question: “what is wrong with these women that they are not making it to partner?”

I would suggest that the 21st century question is “what is wrong with this firm if we are not able to promote the majority of our law graduates to partner? What is that doing to the quality of our services, to our business performance and to the sustainability of our firm?” These two questions yield very different answers – and lead to very different solutions.

Fix the women

Many law firms are creating women’s networks, along with mentoring, coaching and leadership programmes for women. They are popular with most women, who are happy to have some developmental focus. Having run many of these programmes for a number of years myself, I know just how empowering and energising they can be.

The only problem is that I’m not at all convinced that they work – at least not in isolation. The focus on women in firms leads to a host of unintended consequences, while the intended consequences (usually more women in leadership) have not been proven.

Mostly though, they deflect attention from where it really belongs and confirms everyone in exactly the sort of misunderstandings we need to overcome. These ‘fix the women’ strategies unconsciously encourage women to conform more closely to the dominant masculine norm and culture. Women are very ready to agree that they don’t do enough networking, self-marketing and promoting of visibility.

The senior men who are invited to introduce the women’s network sessions as ‘supporters’ and ‘champions’ are perfectly content to acknowledge that women need a little extra help in order to be truly ready (in some distant future) for partnership.

This way, law firms discover, everyone is happy. The women are happy as they have a sense that they are overcoming handicaps. The men are happy because it confirms that women have handicaps.

Fix the firm

The question of why women are under-represented in the partnership should instead be posed to the leaders of the law firms launching women’s initiatives. Before we transform the new, still-different culture of female talent into pseudo-male behaviours, it might be worth understanding the consequences of our actions.

Consider the following:

  • Do you really want to encourage half your workforce to spend time learning and adopting the communication styles and leadership behaviours preferred by men?

  • Have you carried out client satisfaction surveys to see how the different lawyers on your staff are appreciated?

  • Are you promoting to partner the lawyers that your clients and peers evaluate as top performers or those that today’s partners prefer for their availability and expressed ambition?

Those who want their firms to have a competitive edge may want to stop fixing the women and instead reframe gender balance as a key strategic lever in adapting to 21st century talent and market realities.

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