Many would suggest the reason there aren’t more women lawyers in influential senior leadership roles or rising to equity partnership status is that the overwhelmingly male-dominated environment of the legal industry does not do enough to support their advancement.
There is certainly some truth to that.
However, the nasty little secret of the legal industry is how often the women at the very top, who claim to want to help other women lawyers rise to where they are, fail to provide real and practical training, advice, and support.
I have personally seen this time and time again. Many of these senior women lawyers show up at industry events, extolling the words of Cheryl Sandberg telling other women lawyers to “Lean In.” However, they don’t seem to realize that they are not providing a safe space for the women underneath them to “lean in” to.
They give powerful and inspiring speeches. They say they want to create programs and opportunities specifically designed to help women lawyers rise to the top, where they lament being alone as the only woman in the boardroom. However, I believe many of these women actually like it that way as their inaction ensures things remain the same.
I’ll give you an example.
Early last year, I met with 3 partners (2 male, 1 female) of a mid-sized, West Coast firm. These leaders have been touting the fact that they want to see more women lawyers rise to the level of equity partnership. The firm currently has 3 women equity partners . . . out of 40 shareholders.
These leaders have been working on developing an internal women lawyers group for years. Yet, this project has never gained any momentum. Unfortunately, without retaining the support of expert training professionals (who aren’t trying to manage a firm and practice law while creating the framework for a training platform,) it most likely never will.
Developing the women’s group shows up on their monthly meeting agendas but never gets done. This sends a message that although firm leaders are clearly aware there is a women’s leadership development gap in their firm, they actually don’t care enough to do anything about it.
Not only do they not care, these women at the top are also often downright mean about it. It is as if they are saying ‘if I was tough enough to do everything it takes to make partner, she better be tough enough to do it too or she doesn’t belong up here at the top with us. These women better ‘Man Up!‘
Many junior and senior women associates feel dismissed, bullied and maligned by the very women who should be mentoring, helping, and supporting them.
This may sound harsh, but really, it’s time to just tell the truth about this. Have you ever experienced or witnessed behavior like this?
The other unfortunate thing that happens is this. When women don’t model the importance of supporting, mentoring and training other women, it sends the message to male leaders in the firm that the behavior is OK. Presumably, if you rose to the top without help, they should be able to do so too, or perhaps they don’t have what it takes or just aren’t good enough.
All that being said, I have known several women lawyers who are the exception to this. I applaud and celebrate those women who are working hard to create a new paradigm for women lawyers in the age of New Law.
But . . . this must change. The time is now.
What do you feel are the most important steps women leaders in law (partners or executives) can take to help other women lawyers rise to the top. Please share your answers in the comments below.
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