“Dear LiL: I am currently going through the 2L summer recruit, and have noticed that many firms are quick to advertise their various “women groups” as a means of supporting retention of women in private practice. I have to wonder though if these groups, that seem social more than anything, are truly meaningful and impactful in achieving these goals. How do you think law firms can better support women in law and the retention of women in private practice? What sort of programs or initiatives do you think are most impactful?” Signed ~ Make it Meaningful
Dear Make it Meaningful:
First off, I understand your apprehension. There have been many important and sensitive issues gaining media attention in recent years and we have seen organizations and companies jump on the “bandwagon” so to speak, quick to publicly declare their support for one cause or another. While discussions of gender inequality are extremely important, we also see a lot of organizations adding their voice but providing no value, just empty promises. The same goes for women’s initiatives or groups – if they aren’t promoting real change or having real conversations, what’s the point?
That being said, I can feel the world changing. It is not lost on me how much more progress needs to be made, but we are starting to see empty promises being called out. Superficial conversations and platitudes about gender parity aren’t enough, and women’s voices are becoming louder and holding companies (and law firms) accountable. I will use Life in Law as an example; my colleagues, Kim and Una saw these superficial conversations happening, saw the lack of efficacy in traditional approaches and said, “we’re over it”. Life in Law was created with the hope of helping to stem the exodus of women lawyers from the practice of law. A big ask but without innovation there can be no change, and while LiL as a platform isn’t anything groundbreaking (I know chat lines and online support have existed for a long time), it was the fact that nothing like it was happening in the legal world that made it different.
The issues that are brought up through our Dear LiL Blog are nothing new; we all know that practicing law and juggling family and personal commitments is difficult, but we are finally having real conversations. Through these conversations and blog posts, I’ve noticed a trend toward a more balanced version of life and career amongst women in law. So yes, initiatives like LiL are important to raise awareness and support women, but the key components to the retention of women in private practice occurs within the firm. That’s where the real change occurs.
First, mentorship within the firm from women lawyers is invaluable. Women lawyers need mentors in the firm who offer support and are honest about the struggles of balancing life and law. Mentoring can be both formal and informal. Some of the best advice I have received has been in my informal mentorship relationships. I have a group of women in the firm that I trust and I go to for advice. As a beneficiary of excellent mentorship, I now try to offer that same mentorship to a number of junior women lawyers. It is important to have supportive women at the firm who have gone through similar struggles and found a way to make it work.
As I touched on previously, flexibility with respect to work arrangements is key. Take my own career as an example; ten years ago, I asked my firm for a more flexible work arrangement (both with respect to how often I came into the office and how many hours I billed) and they agreed. This allowed me to have my kids and continue in private practice at the same firm for almost 20 years. If they had not agreed to a more flexible arrangement back then, I would have considered leaving. When I made it obvious to the firm leaders that I wanted to better balance my career with my family responsibilities, this type of flexibility was not the norm, but I am encouraged to see that it is becoming more so now. The reality is, that a fulltime law practice does not work for everyone.
This doesn’t just apply to having a family and raising kids, I know of an excellent woman lawyer who chose to return to school and work reduced hours. If the firm had not agreed to the alternate work arrangement, the firm would have lost good talent. Firms are finally recognizing that allowing some flexibility in work arrangements isn’t just a concession they need to deal with, it helps retain good lawyers and this is a win for everyone.
Supportive Firm Culture
Finally, the firm culture has to support women, and I mean really support them. Ideally, our male colleagues should be proactive participants in this effort to retain women. We have seen a lot of progress in this area; however, this is still generally a work in progress. The mentality regarding familial responsibly is shifting, but the bulk of that responsibility still falls on the shoulders of women. Even if more junior male lawyers agree that the load should be shared amongst the family unit, they are often up against a conservative (and frankly) old-fashioned way of thinking amongst some of the more senior partners of the firm who don’t agree with them. Parental leave should be encouraged for both men and women from leaders at the firm and lawyers should feel supported when they return to practice.
We also need to see more women in leadership positions. Women should be encouraged to apply for these roles in the firm and often this is learning through example. Junior lawyers need to see senior women lawyers in leadership roles at the firm so they can see themselves in that role one day.
In conclusion, do I agree with your apprehension of some women’s groups and superficial “efforts” on part of law firms and other organizations? Absolutely. Women lawyers deserve better than that; they deserve real action. I think if we continue to support one another and keep our voices loud, that we will see real change occurring as I believe we have been. Any firm stubborn enough to not keep with the times, risks being left behind and compromising themselves in the process.