Strategies for Driving Gender Equity in the Legal Industry

In the last episode of 2020, The Law In Black and White co-hosts  were joined by two experts, Professor Monopoly Monopoli from the University of Maryland Carey School of Law and Professor Melissa Murray from NYU School of Law, to discuss driving gender equity in the legal industry. Women in the legal profession still face barriers and implicit bias.  As much as we may want to believe that these concerns are behind us, they are not. The numbers show that we still have plenty of work to do to reach gender equality in the industry.

Professor Monopoly and Professor Murray discuss several strategies for driving gender diversity in the legal industry, below are some highlights.

The “Leaky” Pipeline:

There is a pipeline issue in the legal industry and it is not necessarily at the law school or even associate level. While women comprise roughly 46% of incoming associates in Big Law, their representation drop sharply at the equity partner level, comprising of roughly 20% of equity partners. Firms must consider and address the different points at which the pipeline breaks down.

As Professor Monopoly states, law firms still “represent the ideal worker norm,” or a worker who has support at home from another person. This is increasingly unrepresentative of the modern legal workforce and households, and particularly so for women and minority attorneys. Professor Murray elaborates  how these norms, despite increased resources and skill development, continue to structurally stymie progress for women attorneys. Additionally, this is not strictly a women’s issue, but rather an associate-equity issue that affects all attorneys at the firm.

Men must join the push for change. “If men are 80% of equity partners and making decisions, they have to want balanced lives and more satisfying balance between practices and personal life,” says Professor Monopoly.  Professor Murray adds the “lag of the long tail” can be observed in many law firms, with some senior firm leadership being graduates from the late 1960s, a time when women made up less than 5% of law school classes and societal views were different.

Pressure & Pushing for Change:

Clients demanding better gender equity practices has contributed to the modest gains for women in law firms. Professor Monopoly notes that economic pressure has spurred some positive change, but she also describes the lack of bias interrupters for more senior attorneys, and whether outside certification can correct this if clients push for it.

Outside the law firm setting, Professor Murray highlights an example of a judge’s role in driving progress. The judge observed that women and minority attorneys would often be second chair at hearings, and the judge would directly engage this attorney, who most times had written the brief or motion at issue. The legal industry needs to create more opportunities for young attorneys to gain firsthand experience which is invaluable to advancement.

Sponsorship, Education, and Reform:

Law firms often lack the capacity to meaningfully mentor young attorneys. Jon points out that mentorship is too often considered a soft skill that goes uncompensated, despite its critical role in building an equitable firm. Professor Murray highlights how women are often working more hours because they are contributing to firm success through initiatives, planning leadership events and the like, but that these hours are not credited in the same way as client billed time. It is time to start recognizing the work and hours poured into firm success as equal to client billed time.

Professor Monopoly details the importance in educating lawyers about the systemic forces pushing women out of law firms so that encountering barriers is not internalized as individual shortcomings, and empowering persistence through these barriers. Then, Professor Monopoly adds, training for how to ask for what is needed, communicate, negotiate, and progress in private practice is essential.

These are only three topics that should be addressed when discussing how to drive gender diversity in the legal industry. Listen to the full podcast for more strategies on how to drive gender equity in the legal industry.

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