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Ready for Your #MeToo Closeup?

Vivia Chen

October 22, 2017

Rula_Jabreal_&_Harvey_WeinsteinNot to be a party pooper, but I'm kind of done with the whole Harvey Weinstein thing. I know, I know, the allegations about how this movie tycoon habitually abused young women are stunning. And, yes, it's amazing and shocking how he acted with impunity for so long. 

It should go without saying that his alleged behavior was horrible, despicable, repulsive—not to mention, illegal. That much is clear. Not so clear is whether the revelations about Weinstein (right) are truly that meaningful—and whether it will have lasting impact.

Yet hope is riding hight that all this will bring us to a tipping point. As more women join the #MeToo movement (in which women talk about their own abuse by men), the expectation is that we will finally realize how pervasive the problem is. The prediction is that this will result in frank discussions about gender inequities and put an end to the abuse. 

I'd like to believe that, but I think we're overstating the significance of this particular chauvinist pig.

Why? Because Weinstein represents an anomaly, a caricature of the old-fashion ogre that's largely out of fashion in law firms and C-suites. His former lawyer Lisa Bloom called him a dinosaur—which many people correctly thought was a lame excuse for bad behavior—but she has a point. He's also quintessential Hollywood, where men are lusty and women busty.

Hollywood casting couch culture might still be intact, but professions like Big Law have evolved. That's not to say that there's an absence of lust or abuse in law firms or anywhere else. Indeed, research by Stanford Law School's Deborah Rhode and SMU Law School's Joanna Grossman indicate that sexual harassment in the legal profession is much more pervasive than we might think. But for better or worse, the sexual harassment that women face these days is a lot more subtle—an off-color joke, a look, a condescending remark. As one associate said to me, "Most lawyers are smart enough not to do something over the top, even if they're creepy leches." She adds, "As far as I know, hiring partners don't interview applicants in their bathrobes or ask them for massages." 

Unlike Hollywood, the legal profession is not in the business of selling sex (as if you didn't know). The nice thing about law is that it's a hopelessly nerdy profession. What counts in landing a job in Big Law—for man or woman—are academic creds, not sex appeal. I'll bet that even Angelina Jolie wouldn't get a callback at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher unless she went to a T-14 law school and earned top grades. (Gibson is notoriously grade-obsessed.)

And as intimidating as some partners might be, they don't wield power over underlings like movie fat cats who can instantly make or break careers. I can't imagine that a young associate will feel she'll be forever shut out of Big Law unless she submits to a powerful partner's proposition. Sure, there's a huge gender gap in power and position in law firms, but women with law degrees aren't pathetically powerless. 

Which is why I'm reluctant to lump all women who've experienced harassment in one big pot. It's also why I'm doubtful that the Weinstein episode represents more than a momentary sensation. Though many women in law, myself included, have had bosses or clients who've made inappropriate, even disturbing, overtures, it's a stretch to say that Weinstein's behavior strikes home. 

Most women professionals contend with more subtle, arguably more insidious, forms of harassment and inequality. They struggle with being taken seriously, having a voice and getting the right assignments. For a host of reasons, I don't think we will see much of a #MeToo moment from the women of Big Law. 

So what will be the Weinstein effect? Will it stop the most egregious forms of abuse, at least in the entertainment industry? Will there be less tolerance for bad behavior by men?

Maybe for a New York minute. 

Remember, we had a big #MeToo moment just a year ago when over a dozen women came out to accuse candidate Donald Trump of sexual assault and harassment. Plus, Trump himself bragged about grabbing women's genitals on that infamous Access Hollywood tape. At the time, there was shock and awe, and lots of talk about how that was the turning point for both the election and gender relations. 

And we all know how that ended.

vchen@alm.com 

 

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As a BigLaw associate and then a partner, I encountered behavior more like HW's than what you are describing. But that was in the 70s-90s so maybe it's dated.

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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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