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6 posts from November 2018

November 28, 2018

Your Diversity Effort Is a Dud. Now What?


It’s like finding out you’ve been seeing the wrong shrink for most of your life. All that investment of time, money and emoting—but what do you have to show for it? Nada. You’re still the same pathetic, clueless, ineffective wreck you were when you started the process.

That kind of describes the legal profession’s efforts to promote gender equality and diversity over the last three decades. To put it simply: They’ve been largely useless and a waste of time.

That’s one of the news flashes from the study by the American Bar Association’s commission on women and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association. I wrote about the study in my last post, focusing on how female lawyers of color in particular are disadvantaged. (For example, almost 70 percent of women of color—compared to 60 percent of white women—say they were paid less than their colleagues with similar experience and seniority, while only 36 percent of white men report the same.)

“The core tool has been bias training, and that’s not enough,” says University of California, Hastings College of the Law professor Joan Williams, who worked on the study. “The problem is that bias training gets into cognitive behavior discussions, which are interesting but not helpful. We need to get away from those deep soul-searching conversations.”

What? No more group therapy sessions at the firm about hidden biases and micro-aggressions, moderated by an expensive diversity expert with all the answers?

And those ubiquitous women’s and diversity initiatives aren’t helpful either. “Teaching them about building their capacity, negotiation, setting up employee resource groups are all good things, but they don’t address the real issues,” explains Williams. “If you have problems with diversity or gender imbalance, it’s because the bias is in the business system.”

Instead, what the study proposes is something much more cut-and-dried. The three major components are keeping metrics, being vigilant about biases and nipping them, and, finally, working on the problem until you see improvements. The report goes into great detail about how those three things need to be implemented every step of the way—from hiring, performance reviews, mentoring, assignments, networking opportunities, pay and promotion.

If the proposed fixes sound tedious and mechanical, that’s because they are. They are a lot like studying for a big, painful exam over and over again until you finally get a decent score.

The exercises don’t sound fun, but they do seem to make sense. For instance, the report lists all sorts of rules for hiring, such as using set interview questions, removing extracurricular activities from resumes and appointing HR professionals with special training to spot bias in the hiring process.

There’s no doubt in my mind that firms and corporations need to take many more careful measures of how women and minorities are hired, retained and promoted—and there’s frankly nothing sexy about those exercises.

But here’s my question: Will the legal profession actually gather the data, educate itself about bias and actively correct it?

Williams says she’s optimistic. She says the steps outlined in the study aren’t that complicated. “These are technicalities—which can be implemented by HR. And learning about bias interrupters involve simple tweaks to your existing system.”

While the proposals might not be that daunting, I’m not so convinced that the legal profession is in any hurry to do anything different or remotely imaginative in addressing these issues. As I’ve stated many times, I’m still not entirely sure that firms put such a premium on diversity and women.

That said, I hope Williams proves me wrong.



Twitter: @lawcareerist.

November 21, 2018

Shock. Shock. Bar Passage Rate Plummets!

Indian_Turkey_Bird_(domestic)It’s Turkey Day, so who wants serious discourse? Here’s my take on some recent news items:

Face it: This latest crop is not the best and the brightest. Oh, the shock and outrage about those abysmal bar pass rates! How is it possible that takers of the July 2018 California bar exam hit a 67-year low (only 40.7 percent passed)? And it’s not just flakey, laid-back California: From Pennsylvania, Texas, Florida, Indiana to New York, scores are also plummeting.

And, according to Law.com’s Karen Sloan, scores on the Multistate Bar Exam are also falling, hitting “a recent low in February, and now the average for the July 2018 test has dropped more than two points to the lowest figure since 1984.”

All over the land, law school deans are racking their brains about these awful results.

Harry Ballan, dean of Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center (48.6 percent bar pass rate), told New York Law Journal: “We will be re-examining in minutest detail everything we do, in and outside of the classroom, to assure that the continued implementation of reforms [to improve pass rates].” And Gail Prudenti, dean of Hofstra Law School (62 percent bar pass rate), pledged “to think in terms of a multi-year strategic plan” to fix the problem.

Sorry, but isn’t it obvious why the bar pass rates are so crummy? Let’s remember that those taking the bar in recent years entered law school when schools were begging for students. As I wrote a few years, your dog probably could have gotten into some law school at that time.

So stop the chest beating and just admit you let in a lot of duds.

Those latest perks are so awesome! Not! I’m sorry to be a party pooper, but I’m not at all impressed by the most recent goodies that law firms are throwing at associates.

First, wasn’t it clever that Kirkland & Ellis unveiled its concierge service for its busy lawyers? Law.com reports that the service gives “lawyers and senior staff access to a group of on-call assistants who can help with (nearly) every personal task or errand a busy lawyer could think of”—such as buying gifts, finding a nanny or moving.

I must say “concierge” has a nice ring, suggesting a personal maid or butler at your beck and call. If nothing else, Kirkland deserves credit for coming up with something snazzy.

But like all “concierge” service, I suspect this is probably more hype than reality. I mean, how often do you avail yourself of the “concierge” service on your AmEx Platinum card? And isn’t it just as easy to buy stuff yourself on Amazon.com?

While Kirkland opted for splash, Weil Gotshal went the opposite direction, coming up with most anticlimactic perk in the land: The firm just announced that associates can now work one day a week from home! Whoopty doo!

Hey, isn’t flex-time so 2008? And permission to work “one day a week”—as if that’s such a huge give?

I have a feeling that lawyers at Weil (and most firms) have been working from home or elsewhere for quite a while. From what I’ve seen, firms don’t give a damn whether you’re working from home, a boat or a yurt, so long as you keep billing.

Even in the pinkest of pink ghettos, women make less. No, I’m not even talking about practice areas like labor/employment or family law. I’m talking about legal marketers.

According to ALM Intelligence, in collaboration with Calibrate Legal Inc., female marketing heads at law firms make less than their male counterparts. That’s particularly striking, considering that women make up almost 80 percent of the professionals in legal marketing departments. In fact, “74 percent of directors in marketing and business development departments are women, and 69 percent of department heads are women.”

And the reason men make more? Oh, the usual possible explanations: men move around more or are more adept at playing the political game.

Anyway, the authors of the report write: “This finding should give law firm leaders pause. Firms need to examine their compensation systems to ensure discrimination and bias are not impacting pay.”

Oh, I’m sure firm leaders will put this on top of the priority list.

See you at the NYC Bar, Nov. 29, 5:30 p.m. I’ll be moderating a panel on women and business development. Among the hot potato topics: Is it time for quotas in client credit allocation?

Panelists include Elisa Garcia, chief legal officer, Macy’sKelly Mahon Tullier, general counsel, Visa; and Tonya Robinson, general counsel, KPMG.

November 19, 2018

Why We Can All Identify with Gabe MacConaill


Above all else, it was painful to read Joanna Litt’s essay about the suicide of her husband, Gabe MacConaill, a 42-year-old partner at Sidley Austin in Los Angeles. Whether you agree or not with Litt that “Big Law Killed My Husband,” elements of that story will certainly hit home with just about everyone who’s spent more than an hour in a big law firm.

For me, it brought me back to my days as a young associate decades ago—and the memories it unveiled were not pleasant. It took me back to a time when I felt constantly unsure, nervous and unmoored.

Among Litt’s descriptions of her husband’s anxieties, this one struck a particular chord: “He said he felt like a phony who had everyone fooled about his abilities as a lawyer, and thought after this case was over, he was going to be fired.”

For the five years or so I spent as a corporate associate, that feeling that I was merely posing as a lawyer rang true. Did I really know what I was doing? Did I grasp all the tax, securities and other complicated legal issues underlying the deal? Surely not. And even if I did something well—wrote a good research memo, drafted a decent contract or kept a client happy for another day—wasn’t it just a lark?

Of course, I never rose to the career heights that MacConaill did. Never tried. Never even thought of trying.

Which is what makes MacConaill’s story even more jarring: He already had passed the big test and won the grand prize of partnership. He was an experienced, well-regarded bankruptcy lawyer at a top firm. Yet, he basically felt as insecure and vulnerable as some random junior associate on rotation.

I find that remarkable, yet I’m not entirely surprised. The Big Law profession doesn’t give you much sense of security—much less validation or warmth. It’s such a cliché, but it’s true: You’re only as good as your last deal or case, and you live in constant fear that the client or rainmaking partner who’s giving you work might cut you off any moment.

In trying to understand her husband’s suicide, Litt writes that she read about the concept of “maladaptive perfectionism, that combines unrealistic standards of achievement with hypercriticism of failing to meet them.” She adds, “Gabe displayed most if not all of the characteristics. Simply put, he would rather die than live with the consequences of people thinking he was a failure.”

The cult of perfectionism is indeed pervasive in law firms—the notion that you should feel deep shame about an inconsequential typo or experience terror for not properly reading the unstated wishes of some client or senior partner. Even as an associate, I always found all of this ridiculous, but it’s hard not be caught in that culture when you’re in it.

MacConaill seemed to have been totally steeped in that culture. His wife had suggested to him that he quit, and “he said he couldn’t quit in the middle of a case,” adding, “the irony is not lost on me that he found it easier to kill himself.” She also writes: “We spoke a handful of times about how he should just try to care less about the work, but knowing the kind of person my husband was, that was never going to happen.”

As I said at the beginning of this post, it’s ultimately just sad. What makes it profoundly even sadder is that he seemed to have killed himself over the pressures of being a lawyer. And what prompted all of this—at least in the immediate picture—is a goddamned bankruptcy for a mattress company. He wasn’t working on curing a horrible disease, solving world hunger or stopping terrorism.

What killed MacConaill was the type of work most lawyers do: helping a company make or save money. Nothing flashy. Nothing life-altering. Which is what makes it all so prosaic, poignant and simply sad.


Twitter: @lawcareerist

Photo: Gabriel MacConaill in Halong Bay.

November 15, 2018

Already a #MeToo Backlash?


Maybe it was inevitable that the #MeToo movement would come back to bite women.

On one hand, women seem more powerful than ever. It’s not just mighty titans like Harvey Weinstein or Les Moonves who’ve fallen because of allegations of sexual harassment, but hardworking stiffs of the legal profession like former Mayer Brown partner James Tanenbaum and that mystery partner from Baker McKenzie’s London office (whose identity most of us know), among others.

The fallout is that some male lawyers are so fearful of being tainted with sexual harassment charges that they’re running for the hills, dodging close working relationships with women. They might not be as blatant as Mike Pence about avoiding female company (he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife, nor does he go to events that serve alcohol without her), but they’re drawing a line, nonetheless.

“It’s a genuine fear,” says a young female partner at an Am Law 100 firm in New York. “I’ve talked to men—well-meaning ones—who say they’re scared of being taken the wrong way by women, who don’t know how they should interact with female associates and colleagues. I’m afraid this will mean men will exclude us even more from relationship-building opportunities. If there’s a case that entails travel, they might think it’s safer to pick a male colleague than me.”

Women have reason to worry that they might be excluded. According to a survey by Working Mother and ABA Journal released this year, most men (56 percent) are nervous about one-on-one interactions with women at work and the charges of impropriety that might result. One male leader told the authors of the survey, “One allegation can be a career killer,” adding, “I will not be alone in the office with any female—whether she is a colleague or a support-staff member. This is to protect myself.”

That kind of attitude certainly won’t help women gain high-profile assignments or critical sponsorship when men are still the ones in control. It’s also an abdication of a leader’s responsibility, says diversity consultant Jennifer Brown.

“If people in power are too afraid because of the headlines and the scrutiny, that’s a problem,” she says. “It’s their job to integrate those who are not well-represented.”

Brown suggests that the male manager ask women what would be a comfortable format for one-on-one work, instead of requiring them to set the boundaries.

“The onus shouldn’t be on those who are in a marginalized position,” Brown says.

It’s clear that male/female relationships at work are in an awkward phase.

“I am seeing a hypersensitivity among young women attorneys to behavior which, while not necessarily great, does not rise to the level of sexual harassment,” says career coach Ellen Ostrow.

She cites two examples: A male partner who touches the arm of a female associate for doing a great job, and a male senior counsel who compliments the blouse of a female lawyer. In both cases, the women complained.

“There’s a blurring of what constitutes gender bias and what is harassment,” Ostrow says.

Many women don’t buy the idea that men are in a bind.

“Some men are using it as an excuse not to sponsor or meet with women alone,” says Joan Williams, professor at University of California, Hastings College of the Law.

“It’s a bunch of crap that men don’t know what to do now,” says a senior female counsel at a large bank. “They’re trying to be cute, like, ‘Oh, women are so touchy, they’ll get offended about anything.’”

Call it the #MeToo backlash or the Pence effect. Any way you look at it, it’s another reason women are still stuck.


November 13, 2018

Eight Years After Lean-In. Whatcha Gotta Show for It?

1280px-Sheryl_Sandberg_World_Economic_Forum_2013Every so often, a reader will complain that I’m a downer about women’s progress. That I’m too cynical. That I don’t give enough credit to good efforts. That I’m part of the problem, not the solution.

Well, what can I say? I am a glass half-empty kind of gal. And, frankly, you’d be too, if you tracked women in the professions as closely as I do and read all those reports, studies and articles on the subject.

With that warning in mind, let’s take a look at the recently released 2018 McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.Org report on women in the workplace. (The study includes four years of data from 462 companies employing nearly 20 million people across a wide range of sectors, including legal services.)

First, you’ll recall that in 2010, Sheryl Sandberg gave her seminal Lean In TED Talk, and many of us thought it would shake women up and change their place in the world.

It’s been eight years now, so what have women achieved? Bupkis.

To put it simply, women are stuck. At every level of Corporate America, women’s progress is at a stand still. And, of course, women of color are even worse off, lagging behind white men, white women and men of color. (The challenges of minority women deserves its own coverage, which I’ll do in a future post.)

Dispiriting, perhaps, but not surprising. More disturbing, in my opinion, is this finding: Women have taken to heart some of the advice that Sandberg gave, but it’s not working.

Consider these findings:

- Contrary to popular belief, women are actually staying in the workforce at the same rate as men. For both sexes, the attrition rate last year was 15 percent. 

- Very few women and men say they plan to leave their jobs for family reasons (2 percent women v. 0 percent men).

- Both sexes are asking for raises and promotions at similar rates. (In the last two years, 29 percent men v. 31 percent of women asked for raises; while 36 percent men v. 37 percent women asked for promotions.)-

- Both sexes say they want to advance in their jobs (75 percent men v. 71 percent women).

What’s interesting is that the report finds that generally men get hired at higher percentages than women at the starting gate (54 percent of jobs go to men, while 46 percent go to women), and that women never catch up. That’s not the case in many leading law firms, where women and men are hired in almost equal numbers, yet women still fall behind.

You can probably recite the reasons for the gap in pay and promotion in your sleep: lack of support from managers, a dearth of sponsors, unfair performance reviews, cronyism and the thousand and one cuts of gender discrimination (microaggression to sexual harassment).

The upshot is that while women are staying at their jobs, toughing it out and raising their hands for pay hikes and promotions—all that Lean In stuff—they’re just treading water. “Women are dramatically outnumbered in senior leadership. Only one in five C-suite leaders is a woman, and only one in 25 is a woman of color,” sums up the report.

So there we are, again: that magical 20 percent high mark for women in the C-suite. Funny, isn’t it, that that happens to be about the same rate as female equity partners in major law firms?

It’s almost as if there’s some kind of gentlemen’s agreement to keep a ceiling on uppity women.

And you wonder why I’m so negative.



Twitter: @lawcareerist

November 8, 2018

Women Don't Always Support Other Women


At a girls’ night out a couple of weeks ago, a prominent female lawyer said to our little group, “Women are tired of getting screwed, and the only way we’ll get an even break is when we’re in charge!”

I instinctively cringe whenever I hear someone (usually a woman) say that women in power will help other women and make the world rosier.

I hear that message everywhere these days—about how women will watch out for each other and push progressive agendas. I also hear that women are more sensitive, more honest and just all around better people, which is why they’ll make superior leaders. I hear they’re on a mission to overturn the good ol’ boy system in the entertainment industry, the legal profession, corporate America, our political system—you name it.

But that’s not what I saw this Tuesday. If anything, the midterm elections showed that women are not united, and that the #MeToo anger that was supposed to knock out President Donald Trump’s supporters and the sexism and racism he represents didn’t happen—certainly not on the scale that some women had hoped.

Of course, Tuesday had some notable successes—not the least being the big blue wave that washed over the House of Representatives and the record number of women who are heading there. More women ran for office than ever before, including some major “firsts”—like the first Native American and Muslim women elected to Congress. (Fun fact: Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, lost her bid for a second term to be county clerk.)

Commentators are giving women credit for this blue wave—which is deserved. But here’s the flip side: Women, white women in particular, also deserve credit for enabling Trump to continue being Trump. If you took the midterm election as a referendum on Trump, a substantial percentage of women basically put their stamp of approval on the way he treats women and people of color.

Women and men who made a stand for women or minorities, on the other hand, got smashed. I’m thinking of Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota, who took a highly politically risky stance by voting against the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh and got killed by her Republican opponent. I’m also thinking of the two black Democrats who ran for governor: Stacey Abrams of Georgia and Andrew Gillum of Florida, who got hit with heavy-handed racial attacks during the campaign. Consistent with that theme, I assume, Trump called Abrams “not qualified” and Gillum “not equipped.” (As of this writing, Gillum has conceded to Republican Ron DeSantis, but Abrams is refusing to concede to Republican Brian Kemp.)

White women backed conservative candidates tied to Trump and pushed them to victory in a number of key contests: They voted 76 percent for Kemp (97 percent of black women voted for Abrams), 59 percent for Cruz (95 percent of black women voted for O’Rourke) and 51 percent for DeSantis (82 percent of black women voted for Gillum).

I bring all this up because I feel we often oversell (particularly these days) how women stand arm-in-arm against the male status quo. We assume—at our peril—that we can count on women to be on our sides.

Fact is, women aren’t always each other’s best friend or supporters, nor are they always pro-women. (In case you forgot, the ultimate anti-feminist who banged the nail into the coffin of the Equal Rights Amendment was Phyllis Schlafly.) Indeed, I barely know a female lawyer who hasn’t complained about being slighted or disappointed by a female partner at some point.

Look, I don’t want to take away from the notable successes that women made during the midterms. But let’s not overhype the sisterhood or how we’re all marching in line to change the world.

It’s just too much pressure.

Contact Vivia Chen at vchen@alm.com

Twitter: @lawcareerist

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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