Today’s global legal landscape is one that affords attorneys enormous opportunity early in their careers. Meaningful work, career growth, international casework, and financial stability are well within reach for committed associates. But with any opportunities comes challenges. As part of this week’s Law School & Careers features, Lawyer Monthly discusses with Angela Ferrante, Senior Vice President at GCG, the particular challenges women can often encounter, especially in the early stages of their legal career.
The challenges women face early in their law careers are distinct from their male colleagues. Despite progress, there still exists an unconscious bias in many law firms. These preconceptions that involuntarily influence attitude, behavior, and decision-making may be responsible for the inequitable division of opportunities among men and women, particularly in the early years of practice. It may also contribute to the fact that there are significantly fewer women in law firm leadership. In fact, a 2016 report by the National Association for Law Placement, Inc. (NALP) found that representation by women in private practice falls from 49% at the summer associate level to just 22% at the partnership level.
The following is a review of some of the most ubiquitous early career challenges women will face as well as strategies for overcoming them in the early years of practice.
Choose the Right Firm Structure
There is no one-size-fits-all law firm structure, so it is important that law students and recent graduates carefully weigh their options when determining what structure is the best fit: boutique or biglaw.
While boutique firms may offer more flexibility and opportunities for client interaction out of the gate, biglaw affords young lawyers impeccable training that may outweigh short-term sacrifices. No matter the type of firm or direction one chooses to go in, it is critical to leverage the employment interview to ask pointed questions that illuminate the firm’s decision-making structure and uncover unconscious bias.
Ask how decisions are made, how assignments are delegated, and how bonuses are awarded. Request details on the configuration of the management committee and what the firm is doing to promote and retain women. The responses will help women make more informed employment decisions, and the questions themselves will convey the candidate’s expectations to firm leadership.
Establish a Relationship with a Mentor
Mentorship is critical for the development of young professionals and remains a chief driver of employee loyalty. According to a 2016 Deloitte report, Millennial professionals who have a mentor are twice as likely to stay with their current employer for five or more years.
Unfortunately, many firms do not have formalized mentoring programs, and lower representation by women in law firm leadership may make it difficult for women to find a mentor within their firms. Those hurdles, however, should not be deterrents. Women can look to law school professors, former classmates, successful colleagues in other fields, even family or neighbors for advice and guidance. The key is to find someone they respect and admire, whose opinion they value, and who is equally committed to fostering the relationship over the long term.
Get a Seat at the Table
With a significant%age of women leaving the field of law prior to partnership, leadership may – intentionally or not – see male attorneys as better long-term investments and, consequently, award them more challenging work. If this happens, women should ask why.
It is incumbent upon women to be their own advocates, proactively seeking out opportunities to represent their firms. Challenge unconscious bias by requesting to participate in client meetings, hold speaking roles on conference calls, and attend conferences or events on behalf of the firm. When faced with these opportunities, women should confidently voice their position and insights, recognizing that their firm and clients will benefit measurably if they embrace, rather than minimize, their unique and diverse perspectives.
A 2016 Gallup poll found that nearly 60% of Millennials believe work-life balance is ‘very important.’ While the challenge of achieving work-life balance is not unique to women in law, some may find it more difficult to achieve, believing they must prioritize work demands over personal obligations to overcome unconscious bias.
A work-life imbalance can be a catalyst for burnout, so it’s crucial that women find balance early in their law careers. First, they should define personal expectations, review those with firm supervisors, and evaluate their progress regularly. They should also actively engage their colleagues, men and women, in conversations about work-life balance and the procedural or structural obstacles that inhibit its achievement by all members of the team. Collectively, positive and concrete suggestions for structuring or restructuring how work is done should be well received as work-life balance is a goal almost everyone has struggled with at one point or another in their career.
Though female representation in firm leadership remains low, women attorneys – now more than ever – are empowered and uniquely positioned to spur a course correction in the broader law firm environment. By advocating for more inclusive policies for all attorneys, hosting panel discussions on unconscious bias, celebrating the achievements by women in the firm, speaking openly about policies that perpetuate stereotypes, and refusing to compromise who they are, women can thrive in law firms, as first-year associations, partners and at every stage in between.