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Why Do Law Firms Overlook Women For Partnership?

By News Creatives Authors , in Small Business , at October 4, 2021

I’m the Founder & CEO of Stephenson Law, a forward-thinking, innovative law firm which puts people at the heart of everything it does. 

For many lawyers entering the legal industry, myself included, the bright shiny title of “Partner” is the ultimate goal. Fresh-faced, energized and motivated to work hard, I was one of many female lawyers to have embarked on the journey, blissfully ignorant of the concrete wall that lay ahead and the price that would have to be paid to knock it down.

The legal industry is not alone in failing to achieve gender balance at the top: in a study of English and Welsh law firms, two-thirds of partners are men, but women comprise half of lawyers working in law firms. Is this because male lawyers always make better partners than female lawyers? Of course not.

Studies have shown (paywall) that women possess impressive leadership skills, often superior to men because they have higher emotional intelligence and well-developed soft skills necessary for effective leadership. Women have also been shown to be more effective leaders than men in a crisis.

So, there must be another reason why competent female lawyers are being overtaken by their sometimes less competent male colleagues in the race to the top. To answer this question, we need to look at how lawyers secure their place on the “partnership track” and the basis on which promotion decisions are made in law firms.

Most law firms operate in an individual target-driven environment. Lawyers are set annual billable hour and revenue targets, which are calculated by reference to their seniority (and associated cost to the firm). The size and nature of the firm will also determine how aggressive these targets are, but they tend to range from 1,200 to 1,800 billable hours a year. A lawyer’s ability to meet these targets directly affects their career progression.

But it’s not enough to do the work required to meet the targets. You also have to be seen and heard doing it in order to endear yourself to the key decision makers in the firm. A culture of presenteeism is pervasive; being seen at your desk at 8 p.m. elicits a nod of approval, irrespective of whether you’ve spent most of the day procrastinating.

Law firms are littered with lawyers bragging about the “all-nighter” they just pulled, or the 20 billable hours they worked yesterday. This is where a target-driven culture really comes into its own; it causes lawyers to benchmark themselves against their colleagues and feel constant pressure to keep up. And the partners love it because the harder everyone works, the higher their share of the profits will be.

It’s not difficult to see how women are disadvantaged in an environment that promotes and rewards presenteeism and public displays of over-working. Women are far less comfortable self-promoting than men, which contributes to a broad disparity in promotions and pay.

Men can and do doubt themselves, but they typically do not let those thoughts interfere with their actions as often as women do. In addition, the majority of child care responsibilities still fall to women. This means that female lawyers are more likely than their male counterparts to have to fit the drop-offs and pick-ups into their routine and juggle the day-to-day demands of having a family alongside their career.

In a recent article, a female lawyer, Megan Elizabeth Gray, recounts how her firm concluded that she would be able to offer “no value” to the firm if she wasn’t committed to being available outside the hours of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; something she wasn’t prepared to do after having a child. This was despite the fact her competence had never been called into question in the previous 10 years.

When law firms make decisions about which of their lawyers they’re going to promote, it’s inevitable that their unconscious bias comes into play. In a 2020 study, it was found that men are more likely to be seen as “brilliant,” meaning that women are disadvantaged before they’ve even started. The presence of this stereotype combined with their inability to discern between competence and confidence results in little to no value being placed on the quality of work being produced and the presence of impressive leadership traits. The result: confidence prevails over competence.

All too many competent female lawyers are being written off for partnership because they are failing to meet the biased expectations of law firm partners. It’s easy to tell women to be more confident, but this isn’t the solution. Instead, law firms need to address their hypercompetitive culture and the basis on which they are rewarding their lawyers. Ultimately, it’s a question of value, and I would argue that law firms need to fundamentally change their perception of how lawyers add value to their business.

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