The Missing Link in the Promotion of Women Lawyers

Women Lawyers and Promotions

Why Law Firm Culture Needs To Shift For Women Lawyers

I recently attended Rules for Success: Ten Things Women Shouldn’t Do presented by Vivia Chen, Chief Blogger for the Careerist, and hosted by the Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles. Ms. Chen delivered a very entertaining presentation on the status of women in law firms by focusing on what women could do to help themselves rise through the male-studded pipeline.

Some of the sager anecdotes she mentioned that night were:

  • Don’t be the good girl
  • Don’t ask permission
  • Don’t apologize
  • Don’t be so loyal
  • Be greedy, you’re worth it

Good advice, right?  I think everyone can agree that all of us could work on at least one of these areas, women lawyers and non-lawyers alike. Ms. Chen made a discussion on the lack of gender parity in law firms to a group of female attorneys actually enjoyable, which is no easy task.

However, I couldn’t help leaving that presentation feeling a little uneasy. Giving women advice on how to adapt in order to gain power within their firm is a slippery slope. We start to move away from discussing risk-taking, bravado and diligence, and we find ourselves moving towards a discussion on outfit choice, hair style and nail color (Polish or no polish? Oh, and apparently short hair will get you promoted).

Women Are Not The Problem

Indeed, women in this case are the marginalized group. We need to take the focus off of what women are and are not doing (or are and are not wearing) and place that focus directly where it needs to be: on the side of the firms.

This argument has been made for decades: law firm culture must adjust to the inclusion of women, we can all agree on that. What’s different, however, between making this argument now and making it thirty years ago, is that now we have examples of successful, parity infused firms from which to pull.


A recent Harvard Business Review blog post, How One Law Firm Maintains Gender Balance, highlights the 5th largest law firm in France, TAJ, as an example of such success. TAJ is 50/50 gender balanced (that’s right, folks.  It’s a Unicorn). The managing partner made it not just a goal but a priority to have equity among the sexes. He (Yes, He!) is involved in all hiring, promoting and case allotment discussions in order to keep parity within the firm.

It’s not enough to have women-led initiatives, diversity panels, or flex-time to have equality. The change needs to come from above and be driven by the leaders of the firm. Parity within firms will actually enhance the quality of the firm, which many male leaders are realizing as they implement these changes.

As noted in the HBR post, “These ‘fix the women” approaches have not delivered.” And it’s so clear from the numbers: each year, the top firms take in 60% female and 40% male recruits, whereas female equity partners make up only 17% at the AmLaw 100 firms.

Adjusting Law Firm Culture

From a legal search perspective, big law firms are losing a significant amount of talent and spending a fortune on replacing knowledgeable employees who are exiting the firm lifestyle in droves for environments that are more female friendly. Within two years out of law school, women begin to make their exit, causing harm to the bottom line.

To retain these women, firms need to start adjusting law firm culture. It’s not enough to create women driven initiatives; we as a profession need to stop putting the burden on the woman and start accepting that management needs to make the changes necessary to fix this epidemic.  Neither what women wear nor how “like one of the guys” a woman becomes will fix these stark numbers: change has to come from the top down.

With distinct generations defined by different experiences, fueled by different motivators and embodied with different values and approaches to work, law firms and legal departments across the country are struggling to keep everyone working on the same page. 

Request our white paper “Strengthen Your Multigenerational Workforce,” to provide you with a winning strategy for bringing everyone together and strengthening your team as a whole.

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