Standing Up to Inequality Within the Legal Industry

A career in the legal industry can be exciting and challenging, bringing out the best in your problem solving capabilities, quick-wittedness, and creativity. Unfortunately, oftentimes the experience for women attorneys includes challenges that their male counterparts rarely encounter. This isn’t to say that all women have poor experiences, as both myself and our Founder were fortunate enough to be surrounded by positive and supportive colleagues throughout our careers. And these challenges certainly aren’t unique to just one gender. Moreso, inequality in the legal field seems to be rooted in outdated expectations and culture.  

 

Seeing Gender Inequality First Hand 

I’ve been extremely lucky that my employers have been forward-thinking men who were incredibly work-life balance oriented. However, I have been witness to a lot of gender-related anxiety from my female colleagues about issues like taking maternity leave, sexual harassment, or simply making time for themselves outside of work. Some feel as if  there isn’t a “safe space” to put themselves first. I know women executives who take their wedding rings off prior to job interviews, because they don’t want to give the impression that they might have a family, and thus, dare to put anything before their job. And it’s not just women. I’ve had male colleagues who won’t even talk about their families or personal interests, because they don’t want to give the impression that they have the audacity to want a life outside of the office. 

Beth Lebowitz, Auxana’s founder and CEO, shares that when speaking to women attorneys about potentially becoming outsourced GCs, “the motivating factor is more flexibility in their careers, and freedom from a work environment that isn’t always friendly towards women.” 

Earlier this year the New York Times reported that Jones Day, one of the world’s wealthiest and most prominent law firms, was sued by six former associates. The women assert that the law firm underpaid them, impeded their career growth, and ultimately attempted to push them out of the firm upon returning from maternity leave. In a separate but related lawsuit, Morrison & Foerster has also been accused of gender discimination. Seven different plaintiffs have now come forward, alleging the law firm of “gender discrimination as women at the firm that take maternity leave are placed on a “mommy track” which negatively impacted their careers.

 

Lawyers Help People Fight Against Inequality — So Why is This Still Happening?

Without a degree in social psychology, I can only speculate as to why this is still occuring at this day and age within the legal industry. But based on the experiences of myself and many of our Auxana members, we can make some educated guesses. 

The legal industry is extremely cut-throat. Attorneys are battling against their colleagues for opportunities and advancement, there’s pressure to meet or exceed billable hour requirements, and there’s almost always that ambient, nagging little voice telling them to “do more work.” And there are no shortage of lawyers  willing to commit to those crazy hours and requirements in order to get ahead. Under these pressures, having a family, or a life outside of work, can feel like a disadvantage — You either literally don’t have the time to put in those unfathomable hours at the office, or you do it anyway at your personal expense. The culture within the legal  industry creates the opportunity to discriminate because of these absurd traditional requirements. It’s setting up people – of both genders – to fail. 

This cultural dynamic has been a part of the legal industry  for a long time. Trying to change a “this is how it’s always been” situation is never easy, and also necessary for change to occur.  

What can we do together to make the legal industry a safer, more welcoming space for anyone who wants to practice law and also have a life??

 

Correcting Inequality, One Step at a Time

If progress is to be made, we must address it from all sides. New business models, like the outsourced GC model at Auxana, help to reset expectations of what it means to be a successful attorney. You don’t need to sit at your desk 12 hours a day in order to prove value. Your value comes in your expertise and ability to create meaningful outcomes for clients.

Making space for women and men taking parental leave to come back at their own pace can also make a huge difference. Leadership needs to be more flexible, and explore what works for each individual parent. It’s altogether unrealistic to think that the workforce isn’t going to have families.

 Offering realistic maternity and paternity leave packages will help lawyers feel understood and valued in their personal lives, especially when combined with actually encouraging their employees to use their leave when needed. In this regard, it’s imperative for men to take paternity leave, to help set the precedent that it’s not just women taking time and creating space for family. 

Progress can also be made at the attorney level. In a recent study by the International Bar Association, over a third of the women surveyed reported being sexually harassed, half of the women said they’ve been bullied, and a third of the men reported being bullied as well. Another survey shows even higher numbers, with 59% of women working in the legal field reporting that they’ve encountered sexual harassment. Instances of inherent sexism or bullying need to be stood up to and reported as swiftly as possible, in order to create an environment of safety and support. 

We all know that progress is a slow and steady race. I know many women and men who have felt marginalized by the structure of inequality in their law firms.  For those individuals, know that you don’t have to feel stuck in an unsatisfying career. Auxana offers a flexible, practical, supportive model to becoming a legal entrepreneur, and leaving the inequality behind.

 

Author: Valerie Spengler, Auxana Director of Sales & Marketing