What About Women Lawyers Who Are Still At It?

Editor’s Note: This blog was written and submitted by Vision 2020 Louisiana Delegate Donna D. Fraiche.  She serves as the of Chair of Louisiana Health Care Commission and is also a practicing healthcare and public policy lawyer and Chair of The Women’s Initiative of a 650-person multi-state law firm, Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz. 

Donna Fraiche headshotThe American Bar Association Presidential Task Force on Gender Equity and the Commission on Women in the Profession published its report in 2013, authored by Vision 2020 Delegate Lauren Stiller Rikleen entitled:  “Closing the Gap—A Road Map for Achieving Gender Pay Equity in Law Firm Partner Compensation,” citing a 2012 blue ribbon Task Force on Gender Equity, the report showed that women lawyers are disproportionately paid lower despite being at the same level as their male counterpart.  This disparity does not improve with longevity on the career path.  The study finds that bonuses, compensation and advancement are rewards for business origination and more men than women tend toward business origination production.  Do men work harder at origination of clients than women?  Do men tend to unabashedly take more credit and fight for more credit than women?

What can women, who seek career advancement, increased compensation and law firm leadership opportunities, do to address the correlation between successful client development and career success?

Who am I to suggest how this study can be used to promote change?  Writing a blog requires that I bear my soul and tell you a little about myself.  When I entered law school, there were many more men than women.  I looked to the left and looked to the right.  They were everywhere.  It did not seem to matter much then.  Frankly, I enjoyed the attention.  Now there are as many women as men in law schools and graduating in close to the same proportion.  But do women lawyers stay the career course and become partners or managers of law firms?  In the single percentage digits do we find women lawyers serving as leaders and substantial owners in their law businesses.  But the creep to the top has been far slower than the entry-level numbers of women.  I have spent the better part of my life as a partner or an equity owner of law firms.  In fact, three years out of law school—pregnant with my first child—I made the leap from law firm to my own firm.  My clients chose to come with me.  I managed the practice and business without choice.  So, I saddled up and set off to the “rodeo.”  A few rocking horses and complicated nanny experiences later, I sold my firm to a much larger multi-state operation and have been a partner or shareholder (equity owner) in subsequent firms ever since.

I eye-witnessed and worked through some tremendous changes in the health care delivery system in this country.  While representing healthcare clients with complex legal needs, I climbed through a broken glass ceiling and tread carefully as other women scratched their way up or gave up somewhere in between.  I chose a route that actually chose me.  It was important to recognize how I was able to originate business and how I could keep that business in order to produce enough work for others to participate.  Eventually, the client base and team to support the work grew. I could not say “no” to these parallel efforts that included board service, political participation and social/professional networking.  When asked to volunteer time through management and leadership efforts, I found visibility in the community.  I tried to and succeeded in attaining leadership positions in national professional associations like the then American Health Lawyers Association as its first woman president.  These early efforts helped to create who I am and the lawyer I was able to become.  But that personal success was never enough for me.  I recognized that to make a difference is to make a difference in the lives of others.  By advancing with my law firms to positions effecting compensation and advancement of others, I had a real chance to make a difference.  That growth was not in a single silo or a vacuum.  The success was achieved through an interface with contributing time, money and effort to relevant parallel efforts.  I was able to contribute to policies and decisions effecting men and women by serving on the management board or on other decision-influencing committees.  I participated in the process of determining which lawyers would get and the basis for compensation increases, bonuses, and advance to ownership levels.  I recommended both men and women professionals for advancement.  I never considered gender as a factor for advancement, unless all the statistics and intangible performance measures were equal.  It was important for me not to seem to play favorites based on gender.

I have seen interesting dynamics of success in both men and women in my profession over the last, almost, 40 years, but what I feel is truly noteworthy and baffling is that male lawyers become partners or equity owners in greater numbers than women, despite that over the last couple of decades, women and men enter the legal profession in close to equal proportion.  Why do men own businesses and the majority of women work in and for their company?  Why are advancement hurdles steeper to climb and not slip for women and minorities than men?  Are men better and more productive lawyers and workers than women?  Are men better at sticking to and achieving their advancement goals?  Do men consciously or worse than consciously—unconsciously promote men over women?  Is there a kind of inattentive blindness to promotion that favors men?  Are men better at getting and keeping clients?  These questions are intended as rhetorical for an audience that may nod to the assertions.  But, until men and women truly figure out why men are “succeeding,” getting paid more, and serve in more roles of authority than women, nothing will change.

Many authors on the subject of women advancing in their careers find a common thread that cannot be refuted:  women tend to be more tentative and risk adverse than men.  For example, in a meeting setting, women often sit back and listen—waiting for someone else to take the lead, venture forward and be remembered.  Women are careful.  Women often tend to wait to be addressed.  Do men assert themselves more than women?  Do they express more confidence in relationships with clients than women?  Sadly, and this must be asked, “Do men work harder and produce more objective results?”  Women who do assert themselves are often characterized as aggressive and ambitious, perhaps obnoxious and difficult to deal with—not team players.  I supervise both male and female lawyers.  I have male and female partners.  My relationships with men and women have little to do with their gender and everything to do with their respective production, profitability qualities and capabilities.  Having experienced the panoply of characteristics of professionals in the work place, I will suggest what qualities make for successful relationships in business and ultimate career advancement.  I hope that this effort will encourage more women who want to move forward in their careers to self-evaluate their qualities and characteristics, as well as how they are perceived by leadership in order to advance.

I hope to reach out to women professionals and encourage them to get and keep clients, stay the course and make a difference to the world by making a difference in their world.  There are as many women lawyers in the early career stage as there are men.  But the women need to be encouraged to take their brilliant, analytical achievements to the next level—become the best lawyers, best firm leaders, best client developers, best producers, best managers, best board members and best community activists possible to make the needed changes happen.  Lawyers are loaded with education, tools, networks and financial ability to make a difference.  But will they use these gifts to make a difference and to change the leadership statistics and change the policies to make a better life for children and better climate for business?

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Be a winner—want to win.  Win cases, win positions, win elections, win loyal friends and supporters.  You cannot win a game unless you understand the rules, the strategy and practice.  Devote the time to become an expert at winning.
  • Do not give up—it is exhausting to be torn constantly among competing interests, such as business, family, community obligations.  Turn obligations into joyous, rather than regretted, occasions.
  • Identify your team and ask them to assist and trust you to take them to the next level—you cannot manage a successful operation, transaction, piece of litigation or a family alone.  Learn the joy of delegation—empower others who assist you to be a part of successes.
  • Manage your resources—over-extension will only cause frustration and thwart success over time.
  • Let others take your credit—the point is to get the project or the mission accomplished.  The goal is to reach the goal not to get credit for the goal and not to feel the personal disgrace of defeat.  Everyone will know what you personally contributed to the success of the effort.
  • Volunteer for the tough job but use the easy win to finally reach the top.
  • Work harder than the next person—work harder than everyone.
  • Write well, articulate clearly and let your voice quietly shout—you will be heard even when you whisper.
  • Look cool and effortless in your effort—you will be remembered.  When someone conjures you, the last thing you want in their mind’s eye is to look disheveled, angry or complacent.
  • Finally, let people remember you as “scary smart” . . . . “so smart, she is scary”—but not pedantic.

These tips are not intended to be profound; they are intended to be well-founded principles.  They worked for me.  They continue to work for me along with a great deal of good fortune.  You will soon find that if there is room at the top, you will get there the right way—even if it is the hard way.  If there is no room at the top, squeeze gently until you get there.  You will get there if you want to get there.

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About equalityinsight

Vision 2020 is a national coalition of organizations and individuals united in their commitment to achieve women’s economic and social equality. Join Vision 2020 today! http://www2.drexelmed.edu/vision2020giftsonline/Individual.aspx
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