We have all read the myriad articles recounting the depressing statistics about the gender gap in the legal profession. We could lament that, despite the fact that more than half of incoming law school students are women, barely 15 percent of equity partners and just 26 percent of nonequity partners at the nation’s most prestigious law firms are women. We could sigh as we hear that nearly half of the women in the profession leave mid-career and do not return to the practice. Or, as Sheryl Sandberg suggests in her new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead — which was recently released to much fanfare and has caused quite a stir in executive suites and feminist circles — we could "lean in" and figure out how to get women a seat at the table in leadership positions in the legal profession.
There is one key thing that young lawyers, who are not yet in the position to take a vote on equity partnership or groom women for leadership roles, can do. In the immortal words of KC and the Sunshine Band, we say to the women: Please don’t go. To the men: Support the women you know to make sure they don’t go. Make it part of your responsibility as a member of the profession to ensure that women are opting in and staying in because it simply makes for a better profession.
This may sound like a judgment — we know that everyone has choices and that maybe being a lawyer is not the best for your lifestyle or your family. But here’s the thing: Women are never going to be able to gain equal footing in the profession if they are not present to work for it. And, just as importantly, they are never going to be able to make the profession better for women by leaving. All the literature on this topic indicates that the profession has done an excellent job at recruiting and attracting women; the problem now appears to be retaining them and ensuring that they have a platform on which to succeed. Without women at the proverbial table, there will be no one to explain to leadership how exactly to retain and advance women within the organization. There will be fewer women to carry the mantle of change that has started to allow a new generation of women lawyers the options to practice law differently — sometimes remotely and on different schedules than the "normal" working lawyer hours.
Policies and benefits like alternative work arrangements and part-time schedules have become buzzwords in the legal industry in an effort to permit lawyers to achieve more of a work-life balance. The more women who demand or take advantage of these types of policies, the more these arrangements will become the new normal. And although it is more likely that women will be the ones to opt into these arrangements at first, more work-life balance in the profession may even spread to their male counterparts, which will be good not just for women, but for everyone and for the health of the profession. (We have also read and lamented the fact that being an associate at a law firm is the unhappiest job in America, so maybe an overhaul to the way law is currently practiced is not such a bad idea.)
Also consider the deleterious effects that occur when women drop out because they no longer feel it is tenable to be a lawyer. Think of the message it sends to more junior women lawyers. It robs those younger lawyers of a potential role model, friend and trusted resource. Whatever the circumstances or good reasons this woman may have had to leave, to these junior lawyers, it is just one more example of why they, too, will not be able to ascend through the ranks. Similarly, some of the articles referenced above seem to suggest that women are not as successful rainmakers as their male colleagues. Maybe one of the reasons for that is that there are very few women rainmakers to serve as mentors and guides to more junior women.
With advancements in technology that permit the practice of law to occur remotely and more and more clients demanding a diverse bench of lawyers, the conditions are optimal to stem the tide of women leaving the profession in droves, and for women to encourage leaders and management to make room for women by being flexible and innovative in their work expectations and policies. Although the legal profession is still dominated by men, the "old boys’ club" mentality is on its way out. Young women lawyers must not miss this chance to seize the opportunities that will arise from the changing trends and mindsets in the profession.
So if you (hopefully) decide to "lean in" and go full speed ahead down the long and winding road of your legal career — for yourself and for the women who will follow you — Sandberg offers advice on how to do it and what to watch out for. A few of her suggestions seem to apply specifically to the legal profession.
Don’t Leave Before You Leave
Sandberg recommends that even if a female professional is expecting to have significant personal life changes in the near future, she should not step back from her career but should instead lean in. She advises that this is the time to ramp up your career — instead of scaling back hours and turning down complex or lengthy projects in anticipation of getting married or starting a family, you should jump at the chance to continue your professional development. This strategy makes a lot of sense in the context of the legal profession. By ramping up during this critical time in their careers, young female lawyers have the chance to gain valuable skills and experience, build a book of business and bank some face time and professional points with partners and managers. Not only will this make you more excited and invested in your career and therefore more likely to return after any kind of leave, as Sandberg suggests, but it will also give you a stronger bargaining position as you negotiate the leave itself and your work-life balance when you return to work.
One very interesting point that Sandberg makes in her book is that women are often left behind in terms of salary and position advancement because they assume that their hard work and excellent work product will be noticed and then rewarded. However, Sandberg explains that men are typically better at promoting themselves and their work, and they are better at asking for and negotiating compensation and advancement. This sentiment in particular strikes a chord among lawyers. Female attorneys need to speak up and point out their achievements and the value that they bring to the organization, and should be fearless when it comes to self-promotion and negotiation. Women often assume that men have been promoted to positions of power because they deserve it and may not consider the fact that men may be better at selling their strengths and skills and flat-out asking for or demanding recognition within the organization. Female attorneys need to make sure that they don’t get left behind simply because they don’t self-promote or negotiate a seat at the table.
‘Lean In’ Networking Circles
In all honesty, at first blush, Sandberg’s suggestion for these circles seemed a little hokey, clichéd and all too familiar. How many times can we be told to network, find a mentor and band together in order to reach equality in the workplace? But on further reflection, maybe there is more to these circles than the benefits that first come to mind. Certainly, such circles provide opportunities for female lawyers to support each other and opportunities to learn new skills that will help them succeed in their careers. But what we really need is transparency — about salary and bonus structures, about organizations that are truly committed to advancing women up the ranks and those that are not, about the ways that subtle and almost imperceptible discrimination permeates the workplace and how to overcome it, about options for maternity leave and flexible work schedules and how to negotiate for those things, and about how to balance career and family. Sandberg encourages us to be frank about our goals for our career and our personal lives and not to pretend that we don’t want a life outside of work for fear that we won’t be taken seriously as a professional who wants to advance. We should start with transparency among ourselves and then broaden that transparency to our own workplaces. We need to make sure that the conversation about equality in the workplace, work-life balance and professional development never dies out.
The future of the profession depends on making it work for everyone, including women. The best way to do that is to stay in and lean in.
YL Editorial Board
Peter C. Buckley, Chairman
Leigh Ann Buziak
The Editorial Board of Young Lawyer is composed of members of the legal profession. They serve voluntarily and are independent of Young Lawyer. Through their ongoing exchange of views, members of the board attempt to develop consensus on issues of importance to the bench, bar and public. Members of the legal community are invited to contribute signed op-ed pieces.