Resources Articles What Women Say When Men Aren’t Around

What Women Say When Men Aren’t Around

Speech given at the Women's Bar Association of the District of Columbia, Initiative on the Retention of Women
January 6, 2006

Today, I am the story-teller. Those of you who are litigators know that the facts themselves must be woven into a coherent narrative in order to have impact.

In my work as an executive coach and psychologist, I listen to stories - mostly those of women attorneys - and help them rewrite their own authentic narratives. Now that you’ve heard the research and the data from Catalyst and the Project for Attorney Retention, my task is to give the numbers and concepts a human face.

I want to tell you some of the stories women lawyers have told me about you and your firms. I believe that what these women experience as lawyers in your firms is, in large part, a function of the stories you tell yourselves about them.

If you can hear their stories, and recognize your role in them, you will be well-positioned to change how those stories end. You can retain the lawyers you view as assets to your firm.

At first, I thought I’d select stories about obstacles faced by women attorneys trying to balance work and life. After all, most of you represent firms that have tried to retain gifted women by instituting balanced hours policies.

And, although you’ve had some success with these, I imagine you’re still puzzled by the exodus of women from your firms. I thought it would be helpful for you to know some of the reasons why you have not accomplished all you’d hoped to.

But each story from a lawyer mom that I considered had its counterpoint. Here’s an example:

Several years ago I coached a senior associate who had impeccable evaluations and a long history of wins for her clients. In fact, her firm had recently won an appeal in the Supreme Court, and she’d written the bulk of the brief.

The managing partner sent out a firm-wide announcement about the successful appeal which listed every participant - except my client (the only woman on the case.)

I encouraged her to bring his attention to the oversight. She was sure she’d receive a negative reaction, but accepted my challenge anyway. She wrote him an email noting that he’d accidentally omitted her name, as well as the names of all of the (women) support staff who’d contributed to the case.

The next day the managing partner sent out an updated announcement including all of the women who’d not been given credit before.

However, my client also received a personal email from the MP - scolding her for being a prima donna. Interestingly, only a week before, she’d been criticized by a senior partner as “lacking in confidence” because she hadn’t advocated aggressively enough for an assignment she wanted.

A step outside one line and women like my coaching client are “too aggressive.” When they try to soften the message they’re often accused of being passive — or worse, of “whining.”

For example, a senior associate contacted me because she felt frustrated in her attempts to secure the kind of work she wanted - - and needed to be doing - - in order to advance her career.

The partner for whom she was working had her managing two very large litigation projects. Her job included scheduling meetings with experts, managing electronic discovery in two cases with a voluminous number of documents, delegating tasks to more junior associates, and other administrative tasks.

Certainly case management is something that lawyers need to learn. But she was due to be up for partnership soon and knew she needed more substantive experience to warrant serious consideration.

She’d raised this with the partner several times but his answer was simply that he did not need her to do substantive work - he’d do that. He needed her to manage the two cases.

The closest she came to substance was reading the expert reports, but after 75-hour work weeks, these had more of a soporific than stimulating effect.

She was concerned about another problem: because the work was extremely detailed and consumed so much time, she had no opportunity to work with other partners. She was well aware of the need to make herself known to more than one partner when the vote on her partnership came up.

At the same time, she noticed that a male associate frequently lounged in the partner’s office discussing substantive issues in the cases she was working on for the partner. The pair frequently walked past her office on their way out to lunch. She saw some letters which she had written and the male associate had proofed go out with only his and the partner’s name. And she discovered that the partner was delegating some of the substantive work she’d been requesting to this young man.

What would you advise her to do? She could bring the differential treatment to the partner’s attention, but her guess was that she’d be perceived as a “whiner.” What would she say to him? ” I’m upset because you have lunch with this guy and talk to him about interesting stuff and you give me the housework to do.” How do you think you’d react, especially if you were as overwhelmed as this partner clearly was?

Neither she nor I think this partner was intentionally discriminating. If anything, he seemed to be somewhat uncomfortable with people in general, and particularly with women. It wasn’t surprising that he’d gravitated to a male associate.

Oh, and did I mention that this partner was also her assigned mentor? Clearly, going to her mentor wasn’t a solution.

After nine months of this she went to the assigning partner and said she needed more substantive experience - couldn’t another associate pick up some of the administrative work? He told her they hoped someone would be coming aboard in about 2 months. Right now everyone else was busy.

Where do you see this woman’s career going? Do you imagine her staying with this firm? Don’t you think that she, or someone like her, is working at your firm right now?

When you hear or read a report about women not receiving the same kind of mentoring as men, or not being offered the opportunities to do the kind of work necessary for advancement in your firm, try remembering this young woman. By the way, she graduated in the top 10% of her class from a top law school and also has an advanced degree in science.

What do the research reports mean when they refer to exclusion from networks, specifically from “old boys” networks?

A woman attorney I coached had been working with a senior male partner in her firm. The quality of her work had never been questioned and she’d made partner while juggling the care of her two young children.

She was active in her children’s school and had become friendly with another parent — a woman corporate counsel who had just hired my client’s firm — specifically the senior partner to whom my client was junior.

What a great business development opportunity this was for my client! Oh sure, the senior partner would still get all of the origination credit. But if she was able to develop this relationship, it would be a start.

And not wanting to interfere with the senior partner’s client relationships, she’d told him about her new friend and asked if he’d be comfortable if she tried to get more work from this client. “Sure - no problem,” he told her.

So, you can imagine how surprised she was when she discovered several weeks later that he’d had a number of meetings with the client to which she’d not been invited.

I’ll borrow Dave Barry’s line — I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP.

When I told this story to a new woman partner at another firm, she wasn’t surprised at all. In fact, she’s devised a strategy for dealing with these situations. She cornered an equally junior male colleague who’d scheduled a meeting with one her clients behind her back and told him in no uncertain terms about his fate should he even think about doing something like this again.

Let’s look at the situation from another perspective. A senior woman associate recently told me that her firm had decided to “really invest in her.” Suddenly she’s getting introduced to people throughout the organization. She’s now receiving the assignments she needs to fully round out her skills. She’s being brought into client meetings. The male partners now stop what they’re doing to chat with her about work, families, politics.

“I had absolutely no idea what I was missing all these years,” she poignantly confided to me. “How would I even have known what to ask for?”

Yes, women are excluded from networks and not given assignments that would allow them to advance. Perhaps you know that — and are simply at a loss for what to do about it.

You did understand the need to create flexible schedule policies, and you are to be applauded for that. But policies don’t determine the attitudes and behavior of the partners managing attorneys utilizing these policies.

Consider this example:

An 8th year associate in a large firm had worked full time with two children at home. She’d never had anything but stellar evaluations and thought she enjoyed a good relationship with the partner with whom she worked.

Her firm had implemented a reduced-hours policy that was being used at both the associate and partner levels. When she became pregnant, she told the partner that she thought it best that she delay partnership for the time being. With three children at home, she’d need to slow down temporarily before ramping up for partnership. She proposed a part-time schedule including telecommuting.

He was outraged. “Professionals do not telecommute. In the office, a professional is not distracted by other parts of life,” he insisted.

From his perspective, her plan demonstrated a lack of commitment - a commitment he’d mistakenly believed she’d had.

When she returned from maternity leave at 70% time, he gave her the first bad review in their 8 years of working together. Suddenly skills he’d always praised — both technical and client-related — had gone from excellent to mediocre at best.

Policies don’t change attitudes. And the stories we tell ourselves create our realities.

Do you doubt that a similar situation is going on now within your firm? How would you know?

Karen Lockwood, WBA President, thought you’d like to have a better sense of why women actually leave your firms. I know what they tell you: it’s too hard to juggle; they needed more time with their families.

They’re afraid to tell you the truth. Why is that?

The women who enter your firms do so with enthusiasm. Most of them began their careers at your firms with optimism, dedication, and a desire to learn and contribute - and many harbor a tremendous fear of failing — and of the consequences of telling you the truth.

But let me tell you some of the things that tear at the fabric of their relationship with you.

Some have heard from the partners for whom they work that the firm’s Women’s Initiative is just PR and that the last thing the firm wants to do is to be seen as “family friendly.”

Some have been taken aside by your diversity consultants and told that if they want a workplace in which true equity exists they’d better look elsewhere. This only confirmed their own observations.

Others have heard you express satisfaction with the progress you’ve made in promoting women. They lose hope, however, when they realize that what you see as sufficient is only a small beginning in their eyes.

Certainly, many women feel the pull of non-work demands. But they would not leave if they did not feel pushed out. They would return if they had reason to believe that you would offer them a genuine opportunity to get back on track.

When the message they get is “prove to me that you’re committed,” “you’re not worth the investment in training,” “your complaints are nothing but whining,” “you’re fungible - there are many more where you came from” - you push them away. Sensing that there’s no way for them to be successful in your firms, they leave in despair. They’re sick of banging their heads against what they perceive to be a brick wall.

These days there’s not much disagreement about what makes a great workplace. And there’s no debating the reality that employee satisfaction and engagement translate into greater profitability.

The most satisfied, most productive employees, across all industries, perceive their employers to care that they have lives outside of work. They feel like they are treated equitably - which means that they are compensated fairly and treated with respect and that their efforts are recognized by the people for whom they work.

Any obstacle to their achievement reduces their engagement. No one can be enthusiastic about an organization that’s not enthusiastic about him or her.

So what you should be asking yourselves is, how might we tear down the motivation of women who come to our firm? Do we make them feel welcomed, connected, at home? Do we communicate that we value them and their contributions? Do we recognize that they have lives? Do we compensate them equitably and treat them with respect? Do we have two-way communication so that they feel safe making their voices heard?

When you allow “screamers” to demean your women attorneys; or when you don’t compensate men and women attorneys equally — you are undermining the morale of your women lawyers and inviting them to leave.

Even the toughest women can lose heart after running into enough obstacles:

A woman Counsel I coached had been trying for years to get the kind of litigation experience she needed to advance her career. In her firm only one senior partner did this kind of work and he simply refused to delegate anything but the simplest tasks. How many years can you spend reviewing documents?

She tried to get the experience by doing pro bono work, but firm policy prevented counting all of these hours as billable. She tried to develop her own book of business only to discover that since she was not a partner, her marketing budget didn’t allow her to attend the kinds of meetings where she’d be able to connect with prospective clients.

Knowing how competitive her practice group was, she waited as long as she could before announcing her pregnancy, because she knew what would happen behind the scene: as she handed off work so that her clients would have uninterrupted service during her maternity leave, her colleagues were making sure that she’d never speak with those clients again.

And in fact, that’s exactly what happened. When this remarkably resilient and competent woman came back to work, she had nothing to work on. She had to initiate a campaign to find enough work to fill her hours and build her practice from scratch.

Try to imagine how she feels about her firm. What do you think it would take for another firm or a corporate legal department to woo her away?

Nothing in my coaching practice leads me to believe that women leave large firms primarily because it’s so difficult to juggle work and family. You bet it’s difficult. But this difficulty occurs in the context of a pretty unwelcoming workplace. I don’t mean that firm managers like you are not sincerely invested in promoting and retaining talented women. But the women who come to your firm don’t work with you. They work with your partners, only some of whom share your commitment.

A senior partner and friend of mine told me that his wife is uncomfortable when he works closely with - or travels with - attractive female associates. No one is helping him figure out how to address this. Wouldn’t it be natural for him to gravitate to working with his male associates so he can feel more comfortable and be able to reassure his wife?

Another senior partner and friend made this offhand comment in a conversation with me: “This work can’t be done well part time - it just can’t!” How would you expect this conviction to influence the extent to which he expends energy trying to forward the careers of the women in his firm working less than 150% time?

A senior male partner confided to me that he’d helped protect a female associate from having to deal with a particularly obnoxious client. It never occurred to him that by making assumptions about what she could and could not handle, he was depriving her of the opportunity to master the situation herself.

This is how women’s careers are blocked. Significant change won’t happen until you directly address attitudes and firm culture.

Flexible schedules grafted onto business as usual won’t work. Women will leave your firms and seek workplaces where they feel valued and can count on genuine and reliable opportunities to succeed.

Imagine for a moment what your firm might be like after consultation and training that actually changed attitudes and culture.

Picture how it might be different if the majority of your partners saw real talent when women entered the firm, couldn’t wait to talk with these women about their career goals and find ways to enlist their contributions to their practices.

Imagine if your partners not only invited them on golf outings but went with them to some of the cultural events the women planned.

Imagine if their response to a client who tried to get around working with a woman lawyer was to calmly manage the client and assure him of their absolute confidence in your associate.

Imagine meetings in which the partner leading the group told the men to stop interrupting and invited contributions from the women.

Try imagining your firm as a place where people felt safe telling the truth - where a woman lawyer could object to having been excluded from the list of people given credit for a win, or protest failing to receive notice of an important client meeting and you’d wonder who in your firm would do such a thing?

Imagine if both men and women talked openly about their lives outside the firm so that when the father in a dual lawyer couple said he wanted to temporarily reduce his hours no one would be shocked or write him off as a player.

A woman litigator I know would probably be very disappointed if these changes in attitude occurred. She counts on being underestimated by opposing counsel. It works for her almost every time. She’d have to develop a new strategy.

But I think that in this imaginary - but not impossible world - juggling work and family would be easier.

Because you’d have worked closely with your women attorneys. You wouldn’t doubt their commitment. With the great assignments they’d received and the connections to clients you would have provided, they would have demonstrated their value to you.

You’d know what their clients know - that they’re more devoted and efficient than some attorneys working 80 hours a week. You wouldn’t worry about whether they’re working at home or in the office because you trusted them as professionals.

You won’t achieve this by changing policies. You’ll achieve it by talking to your people, helping them become aware of how their actions follow from the ways they didn’t even realize they think.

What do you think?


Contact Us

Subscribe to our FREE email newsletter:

"Beyond the Billable Hour"

Join Our Mailing List



Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., CMC

Rockville, MD
Phone: 844-818-9471

© 2016 Lawyers Life Coach LLC