Women Lawyers: It's Time to Force the Fix

Published on by Victoria Pynchon.

This just in from the Harvard Business Review (not Mother Jones)

No area of the business world is more illogically gender imbalanced than law firms. Every year, top law firms recruit 60% female and 40% male law graduates into their practices. Within two years, their female majorities begin to leave. The percentage of female equity partners is now 17% in the top 100 US law firms.

The solution?

Support and Promote Your Damn Women.

The National Association of Women Lawyers’ [2012] report is pretty clear: “[F]ix the women” approaches have not delivered. Instead, [the head of the number five firm in France] tackled the problem personally. 

What did he do?

He insisted on gender parity from the beginning. He personally ensured that the best assignments were evenly awarded between men and women. He tracked promotions and compensation to ensure parity. If there was a gap, he asked why. He put his best female lawyers on some of his toughest cases. When clients objected, he personally called them up and asked them to give the lawyer three months to prove herself. In every case, the client was quick to agree and managed to overcome the initial gender bias.

The AmLaw Could Fix This If They Gave a Flying Tamale

The most dispiriting part of this article is the fact thatclients objected to having a woman lawyer assigned to their case in 2014

This was my own precise experience in 1983 and 1984. That's right, thirty years ago, clients of my firm on at least two occasions objected to my being assigned to their cases. These were farmers! Well, agribusiness, but farmers nevertheless.

The assigning partner's repeated response was this:

If you don't want Vickie Pynchon assigned to your case, you don't want this firm representing you because she's the best associate I have.

This was flattering, of course, but I never actually believed I was the firm's best associate. What I knew was that I was plenty good enough and that the partner in charge had my back. I've never forgotten his support. And either because I was a better young associate than I believed myself to be or the clients' expectations were abysmally low, they quickly came to the conclusion that I was an unbelievably great attorney.

In one case, six of our clients came to witness my first deposition in the case.

Pressure, much?

They were passing me notes on questions I should be asking and somewhere in hour two, I turned one of the torn bits of paper over. It said, "wow! she's great!" I was a third or fourth year associate ladies and gentlemen. I could have been good but it's highly unlikely I was "great." What I was was plenty good enough.

It only takes one experience for law firm clients to acclimate themselves to women attorneys or to simply to see them as worthy players in the field.

The "Internal" Problem Will Vanish When the Opportunities Are Equal

I was telling this story to my great good friend Gloria Feldt of Take the Lead and she said, "but you should see the studies [or statistics] about women's internal barriers. It's not just the external ones." To which I replied, "but women will turn on a dime!"

After all, I decided to go to law school when Gary Trudeau of the Doonesbury strip sent a cartoon character, Joanie Caucus, to law school. It had never previously occurred to me that law school was an option for women. The following day I went to the University book store and bought an LSAT study guide. The following day.  That was 1973 or 1974. By the time I joined the U.C Davis School of Law Class of 1980, fifty percent of my fellow students were women.

There's no pipeline problem here and there hasn't been for 30 years. There's nothing wrong with women lawyers period, let alone those who graduate from the best law schools in the country (Harvard, Yale, Stanford) in the same percentage as their male peers.

And according to the Harvard Business Review, the women who leave the AmLaw200 do not decide it's time to go home and bake cookies. They leave the AmLaw to go in-house, join regulatory agencies or found their own small firms.

It's Time for a Brown vs. Board of Education for Women

Some time ago, I wrote over at Forbes that it's time for a Brown vs. Board of Education for women.

How long will we allow these injustices to persist? How long will it take American law firms to learn that they are not simply failing a social justice test, they're failing the management of their human resources - the only resources they have. As a result, they are also simply failing, as in collapsing from their own mismanagement. See, Another Billion Dollar Firm Bites the Dust at over at Forbes.

C'mon. Aren't you fed up with this? Is anyone paying attention?

Let's find someone willing to file a class action. It's far past time to get angry. It's time to literally get even. It's time for parity. And no Potemkin Village women initiatives or diversity programs will deliver parity. Ever. Because no one but the very few women who stay in the AmLaw actually cares.

Published on by Victoria Pynchon.