I regularly write thought leadership articles for a variety of legal industry publications. This article originally appeared on the National Trail Lawyers website here.
Approximately 34% of attorneys in private law firm practice are females (cited from ‘A Current Glance at Women in Law ‘– July 2014, American Bar Association Commission on Women in the Legal Profession). Of these women, only 17% percent are equity partners and 3% are in a management partnership at the largest 200 law firms. Women at the top are even subject to a gender-based income discrepancy, with female shareholders at the largest 200 firms making 89% of what their male colleagues are earning.
It seems unfathomable that in modern times, women are still a minority in the leadership of the private practice of law or that a female equity partner is still a rarity. No matter the reason, the bottom line is that we still have some significant ground to cover when it comes to women having a truly meaningful presence in our profession. How do we overcome this extreme discrepancy and grab our place at the shareholder table (and our piece of the financial pie)?
As a trial attorney, I have experienced the constraints of the glass ceiling and learned my own way of shattering it. In 2006, I became the first female hired by a sixty year old, Chicago-based personal injury law firm. I made a little bit of history again in 2011 when I was offered a position as a named shareholder based on my performance as a trial attorney and the significant amount of business I brought into the firm. After nearly three years in this role, my relationship with my firm ended and I set up my own law firm.
In the course of my nine years as a professional, I have been told repeatedly by colleagues to “leave the business (of my business) to the businessman”; that I am a great female attorney and that my value is bringing in ‘female’ business. Men rarely receive ‘compliments’ like: “You’re the best darn male attorney I know, but up against those ladies you just don’t stand a chance! Keep up the work that is good enough for you based on your gender.”
Becoming a shareholder is not easy for anyone. However, it seems that as women we have to prove ourselves in ways that our male contemporaries do not – and some of it is related to our ability to bring children into this world (regardless of whether or not we want or plan to have children). In private practice, women are often excluded from the partnership track due to a belief that once they have children, their attention will be diverted and, therefore, they’re not worth the financial investment. This old-school way of thinking is pervasive in our industry: that a women cannot be a valued worker and have a child, take a maternity leave and be actively involved in her child’s life (as all parents should be free to do).
Even as equity shareholders, women still are not compensated equal to their value. A female shareholder at a well-known firm confided in me that she was told at a meeting she wouldn’t be receiving a bonus because she was going on ‘vacation’ (i.e. taking 6 weeks off after giving birth). When she responded to her partners that her book of business already paid both her and her assistant’s work for the year, one of her male colleagues countered “Yes, but I do not see why this is my problem. I did not get you pregnant.” She left and took her (substantial) business with her – amen, sister! That approach was not only insensitive, it was bad business and cost the firm a great attorney and a solid, consistent income.
Although I cannot tell you on a societal basis how women can gain an equal standing in the private practice of law, I can share my personal experience. After observing how many amazing women were being sidelined for promotions, I recognized that the most important aspect of any individual to any business – including a law firm – is what kind of long-term financial gain the firm stood to gain from me. In other words, she who holds the purse strings holds the power. Most female attorneys (and attorneys in general) under-estimate the power of bringing in business and over-estimate its difficulty. They put their heads down, do the work and go home. Or worse yet, they meet a client and allow a partner to take control of it. As a result, when lay-offs or promotions come around, these ‘worker bees’ are passed over for the person who can bring in the money. I was not going to let this happen to me. And I did not.
Accordingly, my goal as an associate attorney was to create a book of business (referring attorneys) and develop marketing strategies that solidified my professional value to my law firm. I knew that this was the only way I could be secure professionally and gain freedom to make whatever choices I want with respect to my personal and professional life. Without bringing in new business, I would never have been promoted to the role of shareholder or been able to control my destiny – making my own schedule, taking time off and working to direct the law firm in a modern direction and, eventually transitioning into my own law firm.
It isn’t all on women to change the fact that we’re not recognized in the leadership of private practice commensurate with our presence or with our skills. Our male counterparts can assist by knowing that (a) not all women want to bear children (b) even those who do can still be kick-a## attorneys and (c) embrace a women’s need to physically recover after having a child and delight in the fact that a woman wants to emotionally-bond with a child for its health – something every man would want for their own children.
However, we can make more changes from the top than we can from the bottom of the totem pole. Position yourself as a good attorney, but also look at how you can make yourself indispensable by bringing in new business. This will allow you to hire other attorneys and run a business that is good for your pocketbook, but also implements the changes that all attorneys – not just females – need to lead healthier, well-rounded lives.