Top Women in Law Discuss Gender Equality But Leave Some Important Things Unsaid

January 13, 2020

This week we caught up on an October Legal Speak podcast interview with five panelists from ALM’s Women, Influence and Power in Law conference: Lauren Fisher, chief legal officer at Vox Media; Cathy Hinger, partner at Womble Bond Dickinson; Roma Khan, general counsel at Montway Auto Transport; Cass Sanford, associate general counsel at OTC Markets Group; and Leah Yadegar, corporate counsel at LRW Group. What were all these brilliant legal minds gathered to discuss? The status of women in the profession, of course.

We’re always glad to hear anyone discussing how law leaders can make firms and companies more inclusive and retain lawyers who are women and people of color. But too often these conversations stop short of asking important questions and holding leaders to account. Here is what these accomplished women said — and what they didn’t say.

On what inspires and worries them:

The panelists noted the diverse array of job opportunities available to women beyond law firms. From in-house general counsel to chief legal officers to working in the male-dominated tech and financial industries, women should recognize the possibilities and take advantage of them. But they did not ask why the predominantly male leaders of traditional firms ostensibly find the dearth of women partners acceptable, particularly as clients now demand diversity on their legal teams.

Working mothers continue to juggle billable hours with caring for their children, and the panelists were pleased with the efforts of some law firms to improve work flexibility and allow remote work. However, they noted, not all law firms are making flexible options available to attorneys. But they did not talk about the link between rigid schedules and attrition, particularly at the partner level. They did not state what this tells us: firms that refuse to budge on this issue are not serious about inclusion.

The panelists worried over the lack of women in leadership roles in Big Law and agreed that firms must increase the number of talented female attorneys in the pipeline from associate to partner. “True” diversity will not be achieved, one woman said, until a firm has a wide range of different perspectives, from associate to partner, to ensure its leadership is well-rounded and progressive. But they did not discuss the leaks in that pipeline and what causes them. Many firms have reached gender parity in the associate class. Why, then, is such a higher percentage of male attorneys deemed partnership material?

On what they wish they had known 10 years ago about working with men:

The panelists agreed that female attorneys are more likely to lack confidence in their work and in the workplace in general than their male counterparts with the same level of experience. Young, male lawyers are quicker to gain confidence, and in turn they advocate for themselves for opportunities and access that benefit them. Female attorneys have to work against their

“imposter syndrome,” and “love themselves” so that their inner confidence can grow with time and patience. Every attorney agreed that female attorneys have to advocate for themselves every day — whether it’s for a raise or promotion, casework or to simply be included in meetings. But they did not discuss who is responsible for the continuation of this pattern. Who selects these young, confident men for assignments? Who chooses to mentor them instead of a young female attorney?

 Of course we’re thrilled that the Women, Influence and Power in Law conference is even happening. It certainly wouldn’t have just a few years ago. And Legal Speak should be commended for featuring these panelists and highlighting the challenges women in law face. But until we are ready to talk about the real causes of and solutions to these problems, we’re going to continue having a lot of conversations but not see any real change.

Call us when Legal Speak hosts a roundtable on women in the profession and male managing partners show up to promise measurable changes to firm culture and practices.