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Gender Bias: Time to Leave Your Law Firm?

By | Nov.20.14 | Ask the Experts, Daily Dispatch, Law Firm Culture, Law Firm Management

Question: I’m a young female lawyer working in a midsize law firm. It’s fairly obvious that women are treated as second-class citizens around here. Are there ways that you have seen to effectively battle this bias — or do I just need to start looking for another job?

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Kelly DiewertKelly Diewert: Although most workplaces have taken great strides over the past several years to ensure that men and women are treated equal, the legal environment is one where the culture varies from firm to firm. Sadly, the “Old Boys’ Club” mentality still does exist in some law firms.

Interestingly, gender bias can take many forms, such as:

  1. A career-driven female lawyer cannot fathom how another female lawyer could put her family before her career. The working relationship between these two lawyers may become tense and then nonexistent.
  2. A male associate wishes to take a leave to spend time with a newly adopted child. A senior partner expresses that this decision is a career-ending move.
  3. The physically attractive lawyers are constantly chosen to attend client meetings over their colleagues.

Scenarios such as these may result in strife within the office and put a dark cloud over the firm’s atmosphere and reputation. It is likely that if the firm condones harassing or discriminatory behavior, then it will experience high staff and lawyer attrition.

As an individual who has experienced gender bias, you should speak to your human resources manager or managing partner (or both). If you feel you have the grounds to make a complaint, you also have the responsibility to report it. The management team needs to be informed of the issue so the firm can take action to mitigate the situation, and take a serious look at the office environment. Once aware, the onus is on management to take the necessary steps to deal with the complaint. If not appropriately dealt with, the firm could face a potential liability claim.

If you have already taken steps to talk to the firm’s management and your concerns weren’t taken seriously, or were ignored, it’s time for you to move on. You owe it to yourself to find a culture that aligns with your values as a professional.

Kelly Diewert is Manager of Human Resources & Administration for Reynolds Mirth Richards & Farmer LLP, a midsize Canadian law firm. Kelly has worked in the legal industry for more than 20 years with small to large firms and is President-Elect of the ALA Edmonton Chapter.

Shari TivyShari Tivy: Your comment raises several questions for me. What actions are causing you to feel like you are a second-class citizen? Is it a lack of meaningful work assignments? Lack of general social grace by others? Inappropriate behaviors? Do your female peers feel the same way? How are your male peers treated differently than you? Each answer may require a separate approach.

If you are feeling you don’t have a seat at the table or meaningful purpose as a young, female attorney, I suggest you find a more-seasoned female attorney in the firm to sponsor you. Sponsoring differs from mentoring in many ways but particularly in advocating for your success. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a female partner, although partnership does portend a certain level of power. Search out a successful female attorney in your firm and have some serious discussions about how you, too, may become more successful in the firm. Find out if this attorney also faced the issues you find uncomfortable and stifling. Learn how she came to success.

If there are questionable behaviors or outright discrimination, seek guidance from your human resources director or whomever is assigned to investigate discrimination issues. The appropriate party to handle the situation should be listed in the firm’s handbook or personnel policy manual. These are serious concerns and you should take action to prevent continuation of these offenses — not only for yourself, but for others in the firm as well. If it is happening to you, it is likely pervasive and others will benefit from action taken. If you are fearful of doing so, just remember that not taking any action will leave you just as fearful and your career will not advance given the current circumstances.

Advocate for yourself and for what is right.

If disregarding treatment of females is prevalent at every level in your firm and you do not see any successful women in your firm, you would be wise to begin searching for another environment in which you would flourish. Control your destiny.

Shari Tivy has been Director of Human Resources at Bowman and Brooke LLP, a national product liability defense law firm, for nine years, and in law firm management for 29 years. She currently serves as Vice Chair of the ALA’s Committee on Diversity and Inclusion. She has been an active leader in the ALAMN (Minnesota Chapter) and ALA since 1985.

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