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Millennials Are Pushing Back Against Law Firm Sexism

The legal profession may be seen as one of the oldest boys’ clubs around, despite the fact that women have been graduating law school and entering the profession in equal numbers to men for decades. To this day, men and women are having very different BigLaw experiences — but are sharing similar goals and desires.

Sexism still permeates the legal workplace, despite the renewed post-#MeToo focus on gender equality and fairness. In Major Lindsey & Africa and Above the Law’s "2019 Millennial Attorney Survey: New Expectations, Evolving Beliefs and Shifting Career Goals,"[1] a whopping 84.9% of female respondents either somewhat or strongly agreed that sexism is inherent in law firm culture, as opposed to only 45.3% of male respondents.

Analyzing the response rates across seniority lines, of the 1,200 lawyers who responded to the poll on Above the Law between Jan. 24 and March 13, 2019, associates and partners in equal numbers (65.8%) agreed that sexism is a part of law firm culture. This shows us that the partners — the people with power — have recognized the issue. But the question remains: What are they doing to rectify the situation?

While the #MeToo era has brought attention to gender issues, women believe law firms still have room for improvement when it comes to leveling the playing field between the genders. Only 7.5% of women (including partners and associates) strongly agree that their firms have made strides within the workplace.

Interestingly, only 4.7% of male respondents strongly agree that strides are being made. This may be because #MeToo is shining the spotlight more brightly on them as a group, making them acutely aware of the movement. 

Given that partners are predominantly male (80% at the equity level), it’s imperative that partners recognize that they’re the ones in position to make a difference. They must thus be intentional in their actions and behaviors, to convey to associates that they should feel safe in the workplace.

With law firm culture still saturated with traditional beliefs and old-fashioned thinking, millennial lawyers are trying to promote change. And in general, associates and partners agree that the millennial generation is transforming law firm policies and culture for the better. In fact, 42.1% of partners believe this — in direct contravention to the commonly held belief that the older generation is full of curmudgeons who just want these kids to get off their lawn.

Rather, we see a level of respect — and perhaps gratitude. Millennials are not afraid to speak up and clamor for a change. Rather than report frustration about it, the older generations appear to be thankful that they are breaking down some taboos.

This appears in conversations I have regularly with candidates. A candidate recently shared an internal victory for the women in her practice. They banded together and went to management to express their concerns over the treatment they were receiving from a particular partner. The firm listened, and took actions to address the situation, while making certain that the associates were kept apprised of the actions taken. This shows that awareness exists, and firms are trying.

Another candidate, a female senior associate who was working a reduced schedule, was not being made partner — presumably because of her schedule. The junior women in the firm came together and said that they would all leave if she was not made partner. Women are no longer sitting back and accepting their fate. But more junior women need to see women in those partner and leadership roles who are making it all work, to know that they too can be successful.

Even with a slow-to-change work environment, the majority of women surveyed consider themselves loyal to their firms, and many are interested in partnership as their long-term goal — in almost equal numbers to the men who responded. Women have their sights set on the future, and are worth the investment. They want to stay, and excel, debunking the notion that women don’t aspire to become partners and tend to choose a career outside the traditional law firm environment, or life at home as a mom.

This may be why the survey results show such strong preference for informal mentorship over formal. Well over 60% of respondents found that informal mentors played a significant or crucial role in their career.

In contrast, formal mentorship was deemed largely irrelevant, with only 25% finding those programs to be significant or crucial. This may be because similar people gravitate toward each other — meaning women (and men) are seeking out the mentor that they feel the most comfortable with or most identify with, rather than the one assigned to them.

Women need to be strategic in establishing relationships that will help them excel in their career — and this includes choosing a mentor. One benefit to formal mentorship programs is that they allow for the development of relationships between individuals that might not organically gravitate toward one another. Women should request that they be paired with someone in power who can help pave the road for them.

The survey also found that both women and men care greatly — and almost equally — about work-life balance. Once thought of as something only desired by women on the “mommy track,” both men and women in this new generation want more control over their lives, and more time off.

Both genders said, in nearly equal numbers (25.3% of men and 26.8% of women), that they would trade compensation for a more flexible work schedule and more time off. Millennial men feel less of a stigma about voicing a desire to have a life outside of their career than their predecessors did. We saw from our last survey, in 2017, that older generations also have a desire for work-life balance; it was just too taboo for men to speak about until very recently.

While there is still a stigma associated with the idea that women will leave law to become mothers, men also face the challenge of being seen as less masculine if they want more out of life than their careers. When they come to my office, both male and female associates express the same desire to have flexibility and balance at work while preserving their reputations for being self-motivated and hard-working.

So if both genders have the same goals in mind and the same desires for their careers, why does this conversation persist? Signs point to improvement as the vocal millennial generation begins to ascend the law firm ranks. It also doesn't hurt that clients are demanding that firms assign diverse teams to work with them.

In January 2019, 170 general counsel and corporate legal officers from companies in a wide array of industries signed an open letter to law firms, expressing frustration that partner classes “remain largely male and largely white.” (60 more signatures have been added in the months since.) The letter states that signatories will prioritize their legal spend on those firms that commit to diversity and inclusion. Clients expect action — and plan to take their work elsewhere if they do not see results.

Looking back 20 years, we see that this conversation existed, but usually only among women — and it usually ended with women grinning and bearing it, because that’s just the way things were. Today, societal changes, including the #MeToo movement, are having positive effects in the legal workplace.

Women are speaking up at work about fair treatment, and men are stepping up to bear more responsibility at home. Law firm culture is not perfect, but progress is being made. Just imagine what things will look like 20 years from now, when millennials and Generation Z are in charge.

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