Let’s Talk About the Pipeline

March 9, 2020

If there’s one thing we at Page 2 like to “well-actually” our friends in the legal industry about, it is the so-called pipeline problem.

As any lawyer from an underrepresented group will tell you, the supposed lack of women and minority lawyers in the talent pool explains why, despite their “best efforts,” law firm leaders can’t seem to improve their dismal statistics on diversity. Every time they turn on the faucet, only white male lawyers come pouring out. Of course they wish it could be different, but they didn’t build the pipeline. They’re lawyers, not plumbers!

If you are the sort of leader who pays lip service to diversity and inclusion but does not see it as a central pillar of providing excellent client service (spoiler: it is!), the pipeline problem provides you with great cover. You can lament the unfortunate state of affairs and shift the responsibility for creating change to other institutions and individuals: the k-12 school system, a lack of quality career counseling and even the fact that for so many decades, minorities of all kinds just seemed to choose other careers for completely mysterious reasons.

But as all corners of our industry become more reliant on data for making decisions, it’s getting harder and harder to use the pipeline as an excuse. According to surveys like McKinsey’s 2019 Report on Women in the Workplace, men are still more likely to say that women in particular don’t advance in the business world because there aren’t enough of them in the pipeline. The numbers don’t lie, however: more women than men are entering undergraduate and graduate programs, including law school. So what happens to them between their time as a summer associate and the 50% of equity partnership seats they would hold if law firms truly represented the population?

The pipeline leaks. Here are just two reasons why:

Women continue to do the lion’s share of caregiving, whether for their children or their aging parents, and those demands make it very difficult to progress in a field that continues to cling to rigid work schedules and biased metrics for determining progress and promotion. What’s more, caregiving demands change over time and across generations, meaning that one-size-fits-all solutions are not going to do much good.

And men in leadership are reluctant to sponsor and mentor junior women, something we know is crucial to helping women advance their careers. There are not enough women in power to do all the mentoring, and male leaders have always been more likely to mentor the young lawyers who remind them of themselves. More recently, in the wake of #MeToo, they now cite concerns over working closely with women as a new reason for avoiding the relationships. As of March 2019 they were 12 times more likely than they once were to hesitate about having a one-on-one meeting with a younger female colleague.

The result of these two factors is that women do not have access to the same amount and quality of opportunity that men do.

We are confident that once our white male colleagues in law firm leadership learn the truth about that old pipeline — that the two most important solutions are well within their power to implement — they will snap into action. If they don’t, someone might suspect they don’t actually care all that much about equity. And as their communications consultants, we are here to remind them that’s not a great look.