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Are Women's Awards Empowering—or Sexist?

The Careerist

October 1, 2016

World_USA_PauletteI hate to burst your balloon but I find those "best female lawyers" lists rather annoying. To me, these shout-outs suggest that women are unable to compete with the Big Boys.

It's become a booming industry to dole out awards to "top" women in law and business. Recently, New York Law Journal  named its first group of 30 top women in law in New York, and New Jersey Law Journal did the same, picking 25 top women in that state. From time to time, The American Lawyer issues its own list. And, yes, all these publications are owned by my company American Lawyer Media (sorry, boss). But ALM has plenty of competition, including Law 360 and Chambers, which compile their own lists with equal fanfare.

These lists might be popular but don't you find them a tad patronizing? I mean, wouldn't you be laughed out of the room if you proposed a roundup of the top 25 or 50 male lawyers in town?

I assumed most women would share my view. But, boy, was I wrong.

"I don't object to top women in law, business or whatever awards," says Marissa Wesely, a former partner at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, who's now treasurer for the Global Fund for Women. "I suspect that women don't get acknowledged as much as they probably should in the more general awards because there are so few senior women in the pool." Plus, adds Wesely, "the panels that make the decision do not force themselves to think beyond the usual—largely male—suspects."

Even a legendary lawyer like Sheila Birnbaum ("Queen of Toxic Torts"), who's been widely celebrated, shares that view. Now a partner at Quinn Emanuel (she was a partner at Skadden Arps), Birnbaum says: "There are a lot of women who don't get their due. Men don't need the push. The recognition helps you get identified, develop clients; it builds on itself."

Rather than being offended, women are embracing the recognition. I've certainly never heard of a woman who turned it down. Some even say there should be more of them. One former Fortune 100 lawyer tells me that she and her female cohorts are considering a pact to nominate each other for various awards.

A few, however, caution that these awards can backfire. "You have to be careful," warns Heidi Keefe, a partner at Cooley in Palo Alto. "You don't want companies and law firms to say, 'we're putting you up for this [women's] award, but not other awards.' At end of day we want to be recognize as the best lawyer, not the best woman lawyer." Still, Keefe says the recognition is largely positive because it's "energizing and builds excitement."

I get what everyone is saying—that these awards highlight women who might be overlooked—but I still feel uneasy. How can it acceptable to call out the "top" or "best" female lawyers but not the "top 10 black lawyers" or the "best dozen Hispanic lawyers" in the nation? (The National Law Journal, for instance, used to single out outstanding minority lawyers but no longer.)

Keith Wetmore, the chair emeritus of Morrison & Foerster, says that women's lists stir little controversy because we all understand the male/female dynamic at play. "Maybe women are more comfortable with these awards because we know that boys are always hogging the limelight," speculates Wetmore. "So why not give women the opportunity to be recognized?"

In fact, both women and minorities are cool with these type of lists, says a diversity director at an Am Law 100 firm. "Millennials are far more willing and ready to acknowledge their differences and be recognized for them. Hiding or 'covering' doesn’t make sense to them, whereas in older generations it was the way you got ahead."

Well, guess that makes me an old battle axe feminist.

In any case, most women seem to feel that these awards and lists are necessary—for now—even if they're siloed and ghettoized in the process. "I think it honors the fact that it's more difficult for women and people of color to get to the top; some women just narrowly miss the coed list," says a partner who made the American Lawyer list of top young women in law in 2011.

She adds: "All lists are silly. But if there is one, you better make sure you're on it!"

Okay, okay, I get the message.

So if there's an award for small, uppity Asian-American female bloggers, I'm going for it!


photo: Miss World America, 1969, Wikipedia


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

I agree with you. These awards seem to reinforce the idea that women lawyers are swimming in the kiddie pool.

This reminds me of the conversation I had with a senior partner on the compensation committee at O'Melveny, He announced that I would be the first women partner to get a bonus and added, "We see you as a model young partner -- not just a woman partner, but any partner." He backpedaled when I asked him if that meant there was different standard, a lower standard for women partners.

I agree with you. They were useful in the "beginning" but now are so driven by the big firms and connected to financial support in many instances, they are no longer useful.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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