Discrimination against women in law firms?

Former law firm associate Catriona Collins sued the law firm that had employed her, Cohen Pontani Lieberman & Pavane, claiming that she was passed over for work assignments and ultimately dismissed on the basis of her gender.

Last week, the ABA Journal reported on Judge Kimba Wood’s Order denying (in part) the firm’s motion for summary judgment and permitting the case to proceed to trial.  A New York Law Journal article reports the fact in more detail than the ABA Journal’s summary:

The judge said remarks by Cohen Pontani managing partner Martin B. Pavane that Collins was insufficiently “sweet” in dealing with a paralegal “could be construed as reflecting discriminatory animus.”

“A reasonable jury could find that Pavane’s statement indicates that (1) he holds stereotypes that women should be ‘sweet’ and non-aggressive, and (2) that Pavane believed that Plaintiff did not fit this stereotype,” Wood wrote in Collins v. Cohen Pontani Lieberman & Pavane, 04 Civ. 8983.

Collins joined 30-lawyer Cohen Pontani as a litigation associate in 1997. . . .

According to her November 2004 complaint, Collins was told in 1999 that she would never be promoted to partner, despite positive reviews, because the partners, all of whom were then men, were “uncomfortable” with her. The firm’s Web site currently lists two female partners.

Collins claims she was thereafter passed over for work assignments that were instead given to male associates. This allegedly led to her having low billable hours, which the firm then cited in denying her salary increases.

On Sept. 16, 2003, Collins sent an e-mail to Cohen Pontani partners citing an article about the potential benefits of having women serve as lead counsel in patent litigation. She said Cohen Pontani was “behind the times” because women lawyers at the firm were not being given positions of responsibility.

She was terminated on Sept. 18, 2003. The firm claims it fired Collins that day because she sent a series of “insulting and unprofessional” e-mails to lawyers and paralegals distinct from her Sept. 16 message. According to Cohen Pontani, Collins had a history of clashing with other lawyers and staff and the Sept. 18 e-mails were the “last straw.”

While the suit itself is interesting, the ABA Journal report produced comments that are fascinating.  Many of the comments are brief, concluding that the firm did discriminate against Collins or that a woman who is criticized for being insufficiently “sweet” is no worse off than a man who is criticized for being insufficiently “masculine.”  A few of the comments purport to share stories from women lawyers who were faced similar situations and yet made partner at their firms.  One woman reports being the only woman left from her class by her 5th year of practice and realizing that more junior male associates received preferential treatment:

Later, of course, when I realized what was going on and that the partners weren’t going to lift a finger to help me – and in fact, said that the reason for the problem must be that I wasn’t “nice” – I did get angry. Then, I admit, I wasn’t “sweet”; I came to the conclusion that I could get my job done, or I could have all the staff think I was “nice”, and since their behavior was unfair, I was not so worried about them liking me so I’d get my job done. Nonetheless, this is an impossible position to be in. At one point, our head of secretarial services, the person who was responsible for instructing the staff on what their jobs were and how to do it, explained to me that she fully sympathized with staff who didn’t want to work for women, because after all, they shouldn’t have to do menial work for women. I repeated this to the supervising partner; he thought it was funny . . . .

While it’s easy to line up (largely anonymously) either for or against Collins on the basis of only a small amount of information about the case and the evidence, the comments — and the amount of time the responders took to share their comments — are striking.  I’m inclined to agree with the several commentors who suggested that the case will likely settle and so we’ll learn nothing more, but the conversation is, nonethless, fascinating.

I’ve worked with assistants (plural!) who’ve told me flat out they prefer not to work for women, and I’ve seen a number of women succeed in law firms (of various sizes) apparently without facing substantial gender-based issues.  Anyone care to comment here?

Wednesday Shorts 3/5/08

I almost titled this post “The Bad Blogger,” because that’s how I feel!  I’ve been away from Atlanta (my primary home) for all but 3 scattered days since mid-January.  I’m accustomed to travel, but doing this much of it all at once is truly a challenge.  One thing I’ve learned is to be a little more gentle with myself on negotiable deadlines, and blogging has fit into that category.  Thus, the unusually random schedule.  I’ve started using a voice-recognition software program recently (unlike just a few years ago, it works quite well!) and so I’ll have more fresh posts appearing soon.

And, I’d like to share a celebration with you: I learned last week that I’ve received the ACC credential (Associate Certified Coach) from the International Coach Federation.  While I’m the first to admit that the path to that credential was nothing like as onerous as getting my license to practice or becoming registered to practice before the Patent Office, it’s a significant accomplishment nonetheless — especially in light of the fact that only about a quarter of ICF members are currently credentialled, and many, many other coaches aren’t ICF members at all.  I know some excellent coaches who aren’t credentialled, so I help certainly don’t intend to cast any aspersions there!  But I’m quite pleased, and happy to share the news with you.  I learned in practice to celebrate at least briefly whenever an opportunity arises, especially since those moments can be awfully fleeting, and I follow that habit today.

Now, on to the legal news!

Leading Big Law Leaders to Lead  That’s the title of a recent article from the New York Lawyer. The article offers a nice overview of some of the leadership training alternatives in which law firms are now investing, ranging from one-on-one coaching to in-hour training to multi-day programs at major universities, including Harvard and the Wharton School.  It raises a few warning bells:

Paul Zwier, a professor at Emory University School of Law [and] author of the book Supervisory and Leadership Skills in the Modern Law Practice (National Institute for Trial Advocacy, 2006), said that in some cases leadership training can serve as an “opium of the masses.”

In other words, what some firms call “leadership training” in reality is a way to get lawyers on board with a firm’s strategy, rather than truly honing leadership skills.

Dubbing it “leadership training” can make participants more willing to sign on to a program and feel more valued if they think that they are recognized as special. However, Zwier said that even lawyers without supervisory duties within a firm need leadership skills, since such skills are necessary in dealing with clients.

And, as recognized by Larry Richard, an attorney and psychologist with Hildebrandt International:

To truly change behavior, training must include much more than a few days at an impressive school, Richard said. He divides programs into two categories: conceptual education and skills-based education. Conceptual education models are the popular “boot-camp” executive programs offered at prestigious schools that use mainly the case-study method. Those programs are valuable, he said, but limited. Attorneys also need long-term training, or skills-based education, to enhance specific leadership behaviors, which are more readily measurable.

I’m a proponent of leadership development work (both training and coaching) for lawyers.  Some might question whether expenditures on such “non-essentials” can be justified, especially in today’s economic climate.  My answer is, not surprisingly, absolutely.  More on why in a future post.

It’s About Time II  The Georgia Association for Women Lawyers released its study of flexible and part-time work arrangements this week, following up on the 2004 initial study.  From the Executive Summary:

Results from this study suggest that it is about time. Few working professionals feel the “time crunch” more acutely than attorneys. Billable hours requirements render the business of law virtually all about time. Should it be any wonder then that the issue of time would weigh so heavily in attorneys’ evaluation of the work they do? Our findings indicate that the availability of flexible and part-time work arrangements is extremely important to male and female attorneys alike. Regardless of whether they themselves plan on taking advantage of such policies, attorneys place a high value on the availability of flexible and/or reduced-time work at their firm. Isn’t it about time that firms recognize that value as well?

Interest in flexible and part-time arrangements is particularly strong among women attorneys. Reduced-time work options are so highly valued that women are willing to exit employment to find more flexible work arrangements. Indeed, firms that provide formal, written policies governing part-time work arrangements enjoy higher retention rates of women lawyers and firms that maintain a successful part-time program reap the rewards of retaining highly satisfied, highly motivated, and highly committed attorneys.

The study is based on surveys completed by 84 Georgia law firms, and the results fall squarely in line with national results: flexible and part-time options are important to lawyers, many firms don’t have written policies to solidify those options, many lawyers are concerned that taking part-time or flex status is a career-limiting move, and there’s evidence to support that concern.

The full report is almost 100 pages long.  The Executive Summary is 3 pages.  It’s well worth a read.

Your personal Board of Directors  I always recommend that lawyers develop a group of mentors.  Did you notice that’s mentors, plural?  Because each mentoring relationship is unique, I find that those who have multiple mentors realize significant benefit.  And mentors need not be in your firm or city (indeed, some mentors absolutely should be “external”) or even in your profession.  Collectively, this group of mentors forms your personal board of directors.  Wondering how to fill all the spots?  Michael Melcher, author of The Creative Lawyer (which is on my list of books to review here) has suggested finding people with 25 attributes and narrowing down the nominees to a group of 6 to 10 “board members.”  Attributes include:

4.    Can give you encouragement in tough times
5.    Can talk to you straight about your weaknesses
20.    Gives good advice about office politics
21.    Gives good advice about professional development
22.    Gives good advice about how to get ahead
23.    Thinks you are great at what you do
24.    Thinks you have great talents other than your present career

Check out the whole list.  You may be surprised.

Monday Shorts 2/25/08

Blawg Review #148  Hosted by Brett Trout of BlawgIT, Blawg Review #148 is devoted to Internet Memes, complete with the requisite YouTube videos.  Who could resist this?

While considering a theme for this week’s Blawg Review, it struck me that lawyers do not spend as much time aimlessly meandering the web as would, for instance, a typical air traffic controller. As a result, most lawyers are woefully detached from the Zeitgeist embodied in the lowly Internet meme. An Internet meme is any amusing video, email, picture, audio clip or other material that spreads virally across the internet. Unlike computer viruses, which spread based upon how many paint chips the people opening them consumed in their youth, Internet memes spread based upon how entertaining viewers find them.

Although blawgers are more aware of Internet memes than your average lawyer, blawgers still find there are not enough hours to stay up to date with each new version of someone reenacting the Thriller video at a wedding. To save you from this critical legal research, I assiduously complied several of the most popular memes for you. While the list might not necessarily “make” your day, at least it might maintain your work/life balance in sufficient equilibrium to stave off the rubber room for another week. The list is not comprehensive, but it is the best I can muster without being served pre-marital divorce papers. For those of you true professional Internet slackers, swing by memelabs and test your meme IQ.

It’s a fun way to organize some of the week’s blawg posts, and it’s certainly worth a read.

What women lawyers think of each other. Or not.  I was all ready to blawg about the recent ABA Journal article titled What Women Lawyers Really Think of Each Other.  The results (presented primarily with graphics in the print magazine) were interesting, suggesting that women under 40 think male supervisors give better direction, give better constructive criticism, and are better at keeping confidential information private.  Women over 40 were reported as believing that women take directions and constructive criticism better than men and have better discretion than men.  And then, just as I was beginning to compose my thoughts, I noticed the critical modifier to each set of results: 58% of respondents said that gender doesn’t matter, and the cited statistics came from the 42% who expressed a preference for working with either men or women.  Sometimes it isn’t the story that matters, but rather the story behind the story.

An 18-year path to partnership? Maybe…

There’s an interesting (quite short) article today titled, Law Firms Let Women Forge Their Own Way.  The story centers on a Gabrielle Higgins, who recently made partner at Ropes & Gray and was “pleasantly surprised” to discover that 7 of the firms 10 new partners were women.  And if that 70% figure isn’t striking enough, the story goes on to recount Ms. Higgins’ path to partnership — a path that spanned 18 years and was “entirely based on decisions she made because they were the best for her.”

The article’s title hit me also: law firms let women forge their own way(s)?  My impression is more along the lines that women have been working and seeking improvement within the profession (and especially in large law firms) not to mention leaving private practice in droves, and I’m not quite sure how that translates to law firms letting women do much of anything.  But, I (perhaps) digress. 

Tuesday Shorts 12/11/07

Survival tips for new associates:  David Dummer, an associate in the Dallas office of Weil, Gotshal & Manges, has written an article with 10 survival tips for new associates.  Although the tips are not particularly revolutionary, they set a good framework for new associates and might serve as a reminder for more advanced lawyers.  Some suggestions never go out of style, such as asking questions to clarify an unclear assignment, taking a long-term view of networking and staying in touch with law school classmates, and making an effort to learn the case as a whole rather than focusing on only a discrete project within the case.  And I particularly like Dummer’s final tip:

10. Your nameplate is your shingle. Remembering this mantra will help you learn how to operate in the firm setting. In many ways, you are a solo practitioner, and the partners and senior associates in the office are your clients. Think about what makes these clients want to hire you — consistently good work, value-added creativity and efficiency. Run your office so that you can deliver this type of work product to your clients every day.

How did a small IP firm build a 54% female partnership?  One of the interesting things about having practiced patent law is the overwhelming male domination in the field — though that’s changing.  So I took notice of an article about Lahive & Cockfeld, a 30-lawyer IP firm in Boston that boasts 7 women in a 13-member partnership.  Lahive represents clients such as Biogen Idec, Navartis, and Wyeth and bills over $30 million annually.  It has created a flexible compensation system that rewards lawyers for billing as well as business generation, client maintenance and associate mentoring, and the firm offers a work/life balance-friendly work structure:

“We didn’t want to encourage attorneys building their own practice in isolation,” said Giulio A. DeConti Jr., chairman of the executive committee. “We wanted to encourage being like a firm.”

Lahive fully embraces the notion of full-time flexibility, or allowing attorneys to vary their hours and office time while juggling a full workload.

Today, seven of Lahive & Cockfield’s 13 partners are women and a full pipeline of women are waiting to move up the ranks, including 67 percent of its patent agents and 58 percent of its technical specialists. Patent agents, who can represent patent applicants at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and technical specialists typically have advanced science or technical degrees and are usually attending law school part time. The firm has 18 patent agents and technical specialists.

Work/life fit:  As regular readers of this blog know, I continue to struggle with the term “work/life balance” and seek something more descriptive of the real situation — because “balance” just isn’t it.  I was delighted to discover “work+life fit inc.”, whose tagline is “It’s Fit, Not Balance.”  The company has recently sponsored a survey of 900 adults who work full time, with the following finding:

When asked what is the single most important change they would make to their jobs, respondents (51%) chose options that entailed working differently over making more money. When considering a different work style, 35 percent of those surveyed rated flexibility as most important and 16 percent rated responsibilities that better use their talents.

Of the 35 percent who chose flexibility, only 5 percent said reducing their schedule by more than 10 hours was most important. This was equal for men and women and counters previous research suggesting more people are interested in “part-time” employment. Working the same number of hours but with a more flexible schedule was most important to 13 percent, while 10 percent would opt to cut their schedule by 1 to 10 hours and 7 percent would prefer to work from a location outside the office.

“The perpetuating myths that people want to work significantly fewer hours and that work life flexibility means working less are simply not true,” said [Cali Williams] Yost [president of Work+Life Fit, Inc.].  “Most employees don’t want to work less, they just want to work differently in a way that better utilizes their talents or is a better fit with the rest of their lives’ demands and desires.”

Tuesday shorts: 10/9/07

A few things from the last week that deserve to be highlighted…

Bruce MacEwen of Adam Smith, Esq. offers a fascinating interview with Bruce Stachenfeld of Duval & Stachenfeld, a New York-based firm that’s made the news recently with its unusual compensation plan.  The firm pays first-year lawyers $60,000 and calls them “opportunity associates.”  The pay goes to $80,000 after 9 months and then increases semi-annually in $10,000 increments.  After 2 years (and sometimes earlier) successful associates are promoted to “full associate” level, at which point the pay is equivalent to Cravath’s pay plus $10,000.  The Adam Smith interview offers the back story on how the program came to be and how it’s working.  Fascinating.

Steve Seckler of Counsel to Counsel reminds lawyers that “success in the legal profession means having the ability to generate work and the best place to look for work in the future is by keeping up the relationship with existing clients today.”  Cultivate those relationships!

Current or recent job-seekers have no doubt dealt with the question of what constitutes an appropriate writing sample.  Eugene Volokh of  The Volokh Conspiracy started an interesting conversation about the Ethics of Writing Samples recently, springing from a junior associate’s question about what can be used as a sample without requesting the firm’s permission (and thus tipping the job-search news).  The comments touch on ethics, copyright law, opinions drafted by law clerks and their use as writing samples, and more.  As one commenter observed, “what I find interesting is that people cling strongly to conflicting opinions. In practice, this seems to mean that whatever an applicant does is likely to result in a significant percentage of employers eliminating him for it, even though other employers would have eliminated him for not doing it. Wonderful!”

And Orin Kerr, also of The Volokh Conspiracy, posted Fewer Women Seeking Law Degrees,which cites an article from The National Law Journal reporting that the percentage of women in law school has declined each year since 2002.  While the drop isn’t precipitous (46.9% this year as opposed to 49% in 2002), it is significant.  The article speculates that “fewer women want a lawyer’s life.”  The comments spin off into a discussion of legal “jerkiness,” including which gender exhibits more of it and who will and won’t tolerate it in others.

Conscious disregard of value: women vs. the legal profession

One of the things I most enjoy about the blogosphere is the free exchange of ideas and thoughts.  Recently, Stephanie West Allen and I have been discussing a trend reported by Canada’s leading newspaper The Globe and Mail in an article entitled “Office Stress Ruining Women Lawyers’ Lives.”  (With thanks to Gerry Riskin of Amazing Firms, Amazing Practices, who offers his commentary.)  From the article: “Women at modern-day law firms are so petrified of appearing unproductive that they sometimes conceal cancer or heart attacks to avoid being marginalized.”  Stephanie’s comment on this trend is, “I find the behavior of the women who would hide serious health problems to be extremely puzzling, almost bizarre. Think of the statement that makes about their values. Why would they make such a trade-off? What is so important? Are we seeing zombies at law?”

I too find the reported concealment bizarre, though I would pin it as knowing, intentional disregard of one’s own value for the sake of… And then I can’t quite finish the sentence.  For the sake of looking sufficiently productive?  For the sake of being a “team player”?  For the sake of keeping a job that demands unrealistic sacrifices?  What job or profession could possibly merit the concealment of a serious illness?

The law has long rewarded “macho” behavior: working punishing hours, dropping everything to serve a client, exhibiting a mental and emotional toughness that’s impenetrable on the job — all without complaint.  Although commentators often focus on the challenges that women face in confronting those expectations, I find that a number of men are equally displeased about the sacrifices demanded.  Indeed, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin of the Surpeme Court of Canada made the observation that, “The strict, inflexible business model is increasingly questioned by men. . . [the question for the future is] How do we structure the way lawyers — women and men – work; the way they live, the way they serve the public?”

While women face a more challenging uphill climb in some ways, as marked by the often-repeated statistic that on 17% of partners in large law firms are women, I find myself wondering whether we’re in a phase similar to one that existed before women were permitted to vote, in which women struggle to achieve “equality” acting in the context of  an underlying social sense that women will bring “civility” to the system, only to find that women are indeed as tough as men, though perhaps that toughness is expressed differently.

At the end of the day, the questions we need to ask about the profession are gender neutral, though we must also recognize that women of childbearing age face an extra layer of complexity.

Readers, are you aware of lawyers (of either gender) concealing serious illness to “avoid being marginalized”?  I welcome your comments.

Top firms for women or leaving the law: it’s all about perceived satisfaction

As announced in a flurry of law firm press releases yesterday, Working Mother Magazine and Flex-Time Lawyers LLC have announced the top 50 firms for women, as measured through “groundbreaking programs to help women strike a better work/life balance and climb to the top” and “implementing penalty-free flex schedules and mentoring, networking and leadership programs.”  Large firms are heavily represented, and I’m curious whether that reflects their success with these programs or whether it reflects the presence of the programs.  Would a smaller firm that promotes work/life balance as a matter of course but doesn’t feature woman-friendly programs come out well on the survey?  This inquiring mind is curious.

Meanwhile, a recent article in Toronto Life magazine describes one lawyer’s exit from the practice and touches on the variety of issues that lead lawyers to choose new careers.  Replace the names of top Canadian firms with American firms, and it becomes clear that the problems so many identify are a cross-border phenomenon.  The author paints a rather bleak picture of the profession, laying the blame on “the crush of billable hours and the constantly buzzing BlackBerry,” which have in turn destroyed intellectualism, civility, mentoring, and work/life balance.  It’s a painful (but important) article to read.

Are lawyers unhappy?  Sure, some are.  And some aren’t.  Before deciding anything about the state of the profession (or the morale of its lawyers) it’s important to step back and ask what’s behind the pain and the pleasure of practice.  What do you expect to see when you think about practicing law?  Or, to put it another way, what happens when you remove the rose- or smoke-colored glasses?

Adam Smith, Esq.’s take on “The Women Partner Problem”

I’m a fan of Bruce MacEwan‘s Adam Smith, Esq. blog, which studies the economics of law firms.  Today, I’d like to call attention to a recent post that suggests a response to the issues of work/life balance.

It’s probably news to no one that although men and women graduate from law school in roughly equal numbers for over a decade, only 17% of the partners in large firms are women.  (If this is news, please see this post, which provides background information on the gender disparity.)   MacEwan reviews data that indicates that 90% of women who take “flex-time” positions do so to spend more time with their children and data that indicates that (unlike their female counterparts) male associates and non-equity partners with children work at least as many hours as men without children.  Only at the equity partner level do both men and women who are parents work less than their childless counterparts.  “The Women Partner Problem” then posits as follows:

What does all the foregoing demonstrate?  To me, one and only one thing. That one thing seems to have been lost in all the smoke and brimstone surrounding “gender equality,” “sexism,” and the endless, fought-to-an-exhausted-standstill debates between the societal and civic virtues of stay at home Mom’s vs. the battle cry of those calling the sisterhood to the professional office ramparts.

That one thing is:  Having children is different.  It’s different than taking a sabbatical or a detour into government or nonprofit service, and it’s vastly different for men than for women.

The unspoken assumption—on both the part of the firm and the part of the individual lawyer—is that father/lawyers are more committed to their careers and more determined to succeed, but mother/lawyers have heard the siren call of the newborn and will never report back to the office feeling the same uncompromised commitment they did before. Isn’t this what we all think but dare not say?

The post continues with a proposal to “purposely ‘park[]’ women out of the workforce for five to ten years—with no stigma—so that there need not be a stark, dichotomous choice between spending a critical decade or so of your life either launching a family orpursuing partnership. You could actually get to take your stab at both, seriatim not simultaneously.”  The suggested program is outlined in some detail, recommending a voluntary sabbatical for mothers only, with no provision for flex-time (or, as I read it, part-time) practice.

The full post is fascinating, and (as any Adam Smith, Esq. reader would expect) well-grounded in the data.  On a personal level, I admit to a visceral reaction to the seeming dismissal of reasons other than motherhood for dropping back from practice — quite probably because I am a childless woman who elected to work a part-time schedule during my mother’s terminal illness.  I’m also curious whether men with children work the hours they do because they want to, or because there’s less choice for men, though I certainly don’t have an answer.   However, there’s no question that MacEwan’s proposal is a step toward a more pointed conversation of work/life balance issues at least in the context of motherhood.  I’ll continue thinking it through, and I look forward to the conversation that will, no doubt, follow.