So, You Think This is Just “Girl Stuff”: Think Again!

By Susan Smith Blakely

You know the scene. The smoke is thick, and the men are gathered around a pot of gold in the middle of a long, dark-stained table in the middle of a long dark-paneled law firm conference room.  Mahogany, most likely, all of it. 

The men are dividing up the gold. They are smiling. They made budget again. The PPPs are off the charts, and life is good. Break out the Chivas to toast the hardworking men of the firm.

Sound old fashioned to you? Maybe the furnishings have changed and maybe some of those male partners finally have realized that smoking is bad for their health, but little else is different. The table is still mostly men, and the issues that challenge women lawyers are still considered “girl stuff” by the majority of male lawyers and not worthy of their consideration. They think those issues do not affect them. They need to think again.

In reality, male lawyers today are more affected by the challenges to women lawyers than ever before in history. Male lawyers interact with women lawyers now more than ever. Male lawyers are supervised by women lawyers, and male lawyers supervise women lawyers now more than ever. Many male lawyers marry female lawyers, and, as their families grow, “girl stuff” becomes “guy stuff.”  And it all becomes “law firm stuff.”     

To continue to disregard the issues affecting women lawyers — like work-life and gender challenges and the desire for equal pay and equal opportunities — is to turn a blind eye to what will become a perilous future for our profession and for the men in it.

It is a numbers game.  Here are what the numbers tell us. More women than men are graduating from college today. More women than men are going to and graduating from law school today. More women than men are at the top of their law school classes, in terms of GPA and honors today, and, as a result, more of the talent among new law graduates is concentrated in female lawyers. If law firms do not protect this talent, it will slip away without the ability to replenish it with comparable talent.

So, it is time that effective law firm managers and leaders paid more attention to the “girl stuff ” and stopped dismissing it as unimportant. “Girl stuff ” will cost law firms a bundle if women lawyers continue to leave in record numbers and must be replaced. “Girl stuff ” also will cost law firms dearly in terms of lost development opportunities if women lawyers are not taken seriously, and departed female lawyers will leave a hole in the center of law firms that will adversely affect succession plans. “Girl stuff” also will radically affect the profit picture if more firms are forced to pay out large settlements in response to sexual harassment and equal pay lawsuits.   

Let’s take a closer look.  

When lawyers leave, it can get expensive for firms. Statistics show that it can cost upwards to $500,000 to replace a senior associate when factors like headhunter costs, loss of billings for transitioning work, and other business costs are accounted for. Since approximately half of the associates at firms today are women, that kind of “girl stuff” can get expensive.

And statistics also support that many of the women lawyers who leave firms go in-house and end up working for potential law firm clients. Those in-house lawyers have a lot of influence about where they send the company’s work. More and more women in-house counsel are becoming increasingly scrutinizing about how women are treated in the outside law firms. They want to see women at the table exerting influence and being respected.  If the law firm does not have many of those women left, generating business from corporate clients becomes harder and harder.

And what about succession plans?  If women lawyers, who arguably represent some of the best talent at law firms, are leaving in unprecedented numbers, what does that do to the middle level of the firm — the lawyers who are supposed to take the firm into the next half of the century? It is hard to do that with so much of the middle talent gone and the historical memories gone with them, and it is common knowledge that counting on lateral hires to fill that void is sketchy at best.

And, how about those large settlements as a result of sexual harassment and pay discrimination suits? One such suit settled for $3 million recently. That is significant “girl stuff.”

To avoid that result, it is time that law firms looked carefully at the gender biases that affect the opportunities for women to prosper and advance in law firms, and it is time they also looked carefully at generation credits to see that they are equitably applied and not based on foolish and outdated assumptions. It also is time that law firms made committee chair positions and other prestigious leadership positions available to women lawyers at the same rate that those are made available to the members of the “good old boys network.”

So, if the importance of “girl stuff ” has grabbed your attention, it is time to explore why women lawyers leave. The research indicates that women lawyers don’t leave just because of unequal pay and gender and work-life issues.  Although those continue to be major causes, it does not stop there. Women also leave for other reasons, and those other reasons are centered around value systems that are very different from those of men. 

Values. Yes, this is beginning to sound like “girl stuff,” again, right?  Wrong. The values that women have brought to the workplace for decades are the same values that Millennials, both male and female, are looking for in the workplace today.  If a kinder, more polite, more team-oriented, more family-oriented, more flexible and less toxic workplace sounds like “girl stuff ”, wrong again. Both male and female lawyers today are seeking just that.

Women and millennials make up a large part of the future of our profession. Times are changing, and law firm leaders and managers must change with the times. Gone are the days when it was acceptable to assign a sexist monaker like “just girl stuff ” to the issues affecting women lawyers.

Women workers, in general, are striking back after years of being disregarded or worse. Major television networks and movie producers are throwing the offending males out on their ears, and women are suing for their injuries and losses. Other businesses and governments and educational institutions are turning a very critical eye to issues of gender bias and sexual harassment, as well, and there is more than one high-profile case to show for it. 

Women lawyers will not be left behind. They are striking back, too.  Where once women lawyers would barely suggest issues of unequal pay, women lawyers and women partners today are suing their firms for equal compensation and equal opportunities.  Women lawyers - and some male lawyers - also are pushing the envelope toward flexible time that includes more telecommuting and recognition that the law firm office is only one of many places to get the job done.   Women lawyers also are leaving to start their own firms - and taking law firm clients with them with offers of reduced billable rates and more personal representation.

And, some law firms are listening. It was announced last year by Morgan Lewis that it will allow any associate, who has been at the firm for at least two years, to work from home for up to two days a week.  Other firms followed suit. Not only do these programs make sense in this age of technology, but programs like this demonstrate the kind of flexibility that we would expect from excellent managers

And, this is just the beginning. As the war for talent is being raged in the halls of law schools and law firms across this country, other issues also will have to be addressed.

One thing is for certain. These issues can no longer be considered “girl stuff.” Rather, they are stuff that adversely affects female lawyers and male lawyers alike and will adversely affect law firms continuously over time. 

Recently, when I was speaking at a conference of the Federal Bar Association, a woman judge told me afterwards, “The women lawyers are gaining. They are smart, capable, determined and hungry.  They have waited too long.  Soon, there will not be nearly as many men in private practice. They will decide not to compete and will leave firms for in-house positions or business or retire.”

Is that what we want — or should we be able to address the serious issues in our profession without a complete reorganization that will put us back to square one where the majority class rules with an iron hand and with little in terms of empathy and understanding for others?

This train is leaving the station. It is time for all law firm leaders and managers to get on board. “Just girl stuff” is a thing of the past.

All rights reserved to Susan Smith Blakely, who is founder and principal of Legal Perspectives and author of Best Friends at the Bar book series



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