Why you should insist on diversity in your law practice
Suzie Scanlon Rabinowitz.
Showing up on my first day as an associate at a prestigious law firm in Manhattan, the receptionist asked me whose daughter I was. She assumed I was visiting my father, presumably a partner.
The firm’s gatekeeper was telling me I did not fit the image of an attorney at that firm. That was 25 years ago, but today, women attorneys are still being misidentified in the workplace, mistaken for administrative staff, court personnel and even janitors, according to a recent report by the Center for Worklife Law at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.
It sounds like a benign problem, but it is not: How women are perceived matters. As partners like to remind associates, when it comes to making it, perception is reality.
Both the perception of and reality for women attorneys is disheartening. According to the National Association for Law Placement, women accounted for 20% of equity law firm partners in 2018. That’s while women have constituted about half of law school graduates for the past 20 years, according to Catalyst, a nonprofit focused on advancing women’s professional progress. By many other key metrics, the law is still male-dominated, especially at its highest levels.
In a profession where cultural change happens at a creeping pace, how can we change the perception—and the reality—that success for women at the upper echelons is the exception, rather than the rule? Just as important, how can we elevate the practice of law by fostering diversity in the profession?
Diversity elevates the practice of law
The ABA Model Rules Of Professional Conduct recognize a lawyer’s counsel may go beyond the law and encompass “other considerations such as moral, economic, social and political factors, that may be relevant to the client’s situation.” In fact, I would argue, the failure to consider such factors perpetuates the narrow, short-term thinking that puts people and institutions at risk. Diversity within the bar ensures we have lawyers with the varied perspectives and experiences needed to truly add value for clients as well as the communities and societies that help sustain them.
Accordingly, when it comes to gender equality, and, more broadly, diversity, in our own profession, we can and should do better. We are professional advocates, after all. We should do nothing less than insist on diversity.
What it means to insist on diversity
Insisting on diversity is not about mandatory quotas in hiring or promotions. As the founding partner in my firm, I always hire the most qualified candidate, regardless of personal characteristics, whenever I have an open position. Nor is insisting on diversity a zero-sum game where one group gains at another group’s expense.
Rather, it should be about making strategic and pragmatic changes that level the playing field and address ingrained biases in how work gets done. In a profession notorious for the unhappiness of its members because of the long hours, poor work-life balance and lack of transparency in talent management, such changes will be welcome by women and men alike.
Greater flexibility in location and hours
One big strategic and pragmatic change that supports diversity is greater flexibility in working location and hours. Recent studies have found that women still bear a heavier burden than men for caring for their families, so affording women the ability to work from home, without questioning their commitment to their jobs or colleagues, is a critically important way to counter the unconscious bias they face when required to spend long days in the office.
Such bias is seldom acknowledged, but it is plainly evident, for example, when firms require their employees to be in the office when children need to be dropped off at and picked up from day care or school.
Working virtually instead of in a bricks-and-mortar office enables a woman to be a presence in her home who can oversee what is happening there, even if she is drafting an agreement or negotiating a deal. She can walk a child to a bus stop without any negative impact to the quality of her work product and be on hand in case she needs to take a family member to a doctor.
At the same time, with improvements in communications technology, she can fully participate in team meetings and interact with those who manage her and those she manages. I would be remiss not to mention that this type of flexibility is not only valued by women, but also by men who want to play a more meaningful role in the lives of their children.
Another significant change that would promote equality in the workplace is the use of operating models centered around true teamwork rather than hierarchical structures in which partners manage individual contributors. Teams can support one another and can be structured in ways that ensure consistent and high-quality client service around the clock, every day of the year.
As with sports, working as a high-performing team means that, even if a member steps out, the team remains strong. The ability to step out is important, whether it is to have a baby, care for an aging parent or take a long-anticipated vacation without fear of being called back to the office. When talented, dedicated and career-minded women and men are given the opportunity to work as a team, and they know their teammates have their backs, they can be expected to work even harder.
Contrast the team model with the more commonplace—and, one could argue, testosterone-driven—model of cutthroat competition, which bleeds valuable talent. This old-school model results in high attrition rates of diverse talent and the melancholy of many who stick around. Significantly, it also has resulted in partnership classes that are largely nondiverse.
Innovative approaches to sourcing talent
We also need to move beyond the limited ways in which legal talent is sourced, finding innovative approaches in which we can bring much needed diversity to our firms and client teams. Let me provide two examples from personal experience.
My law firm has developed a relationship with the Military Spouse J.D. Network, a nonprofit that connects military spouse attorneys with each other and their supporters, including those looking to hire. Military spouses are an overlooked source of talent. Because they typically move on a regular basis as their husbands’ and wives’ deployments change, they are unlikely candidates for legal positions that require them to be in one location long term.
With a growing number of jurisdictions changing their bar admission requirements to accommodate attorney military spouses who are admitted in another jurisdiction, the Military Spouse J.D. Network has become a resource for diverse legal talent, especially for firms that allow virtual working arrangements.
A second example of an innovative way to source talent is secondments, in which lawyers are engaged for temporary assignments with in-house legal departments and law firms. Secondments, which can evolve into full-time roles, not only enable employers to staff up when the need arises; they also give lawyers and firms much-needed flexibility to explore and build relationships that can infuse diversity in organizations swiftly and effectively.
As the gig economy continues to gain traction, secondments provide an increasingly viable way to disrupt legacy hiring and talent management practices that have resulted in nondiverse outcomes.
Clients seeking to advance diversity also can insist on diversity, and their influence can go beyond trying to impact law firm hiring, promotion practices and staffing of client matters.
Clients can initiate collaborations between the traditional law firms they use and women- and minority-owned firms. Such arrangements can deliver cost savings, along with better outcomes.
Nothing will change if we don’t insist
“Insist” sounds like a word brimming with confrontation, but it needn’t be. Insisting can be about moving forward in ways that are strategic as well as pragmatic, serve clients, increase job satisfaction among lawyers and elevate the practice by fostering much-needed diversity within the profession.
The time to insist on much-needed change is now.
Suzie Scanlon Rabinowitz is managing partner of SRD Legal Group, which is a women-owned virtual law firm founded as an alternative for companies committed to working with women- and minority-owned law firms. She is also co-founder and managing director of Bliss Lawyers, which redefines how lawyers and clients can flexibly work together, save money and achieve outstanding results. She is co-author of Finding Bliss: Innovative Legal Models for Happy Clients & Happy Lawyers, published by the ABA in 2015. Rabinowitz currently is chair of the LaGuardia Community College Foundation, a trustee of NJ LEEP and a member of the leadership advisory board of the Ridgefield Playhouse.
ABAJournal.com is accepting queries for original, thoughtful, nonpromotional articles and commentary by unpaid contributors to run in the Your Voice section. Details and submission guidelines are posted at “Your Submissions, Your Voice.”