As a girl growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, I loved to talk. When I was three years old, for example, my mother, in a letter to her younger brother who was then serving in the Peace Corps in India, wrote: “You have to converse with her to appreciate it… if she lets you get a word in, that is.” Another letter from my Grandma Belle recounts: “I asked her to please stop talking for fifteen minutes,” to which I apparently responded: “I really can’t Grandma, I’m a big talker.” I wanted to become a lawyer because I had heard somewhere that lawyers actually got paid to talk a lot.
That’s why it was so disheartening to read an article in American Lawyer titled “Male Clients Disfavor Women Partners.” The article notes that “male clients are choosing women to lead their work at a rate that’s even below the national percentage of female equity partners,” which is 19 percent. This is despite the fact, as the author aptly notes, that research shows “mixed gender teams significantly outperform single-sex teams on all industry-recognized key performance indicators.”
What is even more disheartening (not to mention exhausting) is that it feels like we keep having the very same conversation over and over again. Reading this article made me feel like I was the Bill Murray character in some bizarre, anti-feminist version of the movie “Groundhog Day.” In fact, in 1988—the year I graduated from college—none other than Hillary Clinton served as the inaugural chair of the American Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession. In that position, she released a then-groundbreaking report documenting the lack of advancement opportunities for female lawyers.
But thirty years later, and despite the fact that women make up more than 50 percent of law school graduates (and have for years), not much has changed. The statistics paint a bleak portrait of our profession: according to a recent report by the New York State Bar Association, women represent only 25 percent of lead counsel roles in all types of cases. The most striking disparity appears in complex commercial cases: women’s representation as lead counsel shrinks from 31 percent in one-party cases to 26 percent in two-party cases to just 19 percent in cases involving five or more parties. In other words, at every level and every court—federal and state, trial and appellate, criminal and civil—it is clear that women are not getting the chance to talk.
The problem here is one of access, not substance. Clients are best served by lawyers who will fight on their behalf, regardless of how they look, love or pray. The best lawyers really listen to what their clients have to say, take their clients’ issues to heart, and then help to solve their clients’ problems in creative and efficient ways. These, of course, are not gender-specific qualities.
At Kaplan & Company, we defend companies like T-Mobile and Airbnb, and we defend clients like Melanie Kohler, the woman sued by Hollywood producer Brett Ratner for defamation. We sue counterparties in connection with complicated real estate ventures, and we sue the Nazis and white supremacists responsible for the violence in Charlottesville. And the gender, ethnicity, or religion of our lawyers makes zero difference to the skills, commitment and work product we bring to the table.
In her new book, “Women & Power: A Manifesto,” the eminent classical scholar Mary Beard observes that the “mechanisms that silence women, that refuse to take them seriously and that sever them … from the centres of power” are “deeply embedded” in Western culture. But even though it’s very clear how deeply these attitudes are entrenched, we cannot be like Bill Murray, still having this very same conversation 30 years from now. Time is, quite literally, up. As per usual, my Grandma Belle was 100 percent correct—there is nothing wrong with being a girl who really, really likes to talk. Time’s Up.
Robbie Kaplan can be followed on Twitter @kaplanrobbie.