A recent ABA survey of women in law confirmed something most of us know instinctively: a culture that limits leadership opportunities persists as a barrier for women practicing law.
While these findings may only reinforce what we already observed to be true, they are nevertheless an important reminder that the industry needs to change. That has to start with finding new ways to be more inclusive, with supporting women at every point of their careers, and with unleashing the skills, experiences, and expertise of a more diverse community than ever before.
As I write this, I am less than three months into my tenure as one of four new leaders of a large law firm, the path to getting here is fresh on my mind. I also recognize that my experience remains unusual in our industry, but it doesn’t have to be. I benefited from a range of extraordinary mentors who pushed me, but also looked for every opportunity to steer me in the right direction. I had thoughtful allies—men and women—who actively supported me in my professional journey.
And thankfully, I work within a professional culture that emphasizes a sense of actual, meaningful connection and collaboration—with our clients, with our subject matter, and with our colleagues—the kind that allows you to ask for, and get help, when you need it. Only by leveraging these support systems have I managed the pendulum swings between career and family, that tension for so many women, the one that all too often sidelines women as they conclude it simply is not manageable.
We Need Frank Conversation About Law Firm Culture
In recent years, the conversation about gender in the workplace has intensified, and that’s a positive step. Now we need to turn that well-meaning dialogue into action, and that begins with a frank conversation about law firm culture.
Too many women are expected to leave their lived experience at the office door, and too few are given the chance to demonstrate their worth. This expectation prevents many women from fulfilling their potential. And it holds law firms back by depriving them of talented legal minds. Law schools have graduated 50/50 classes for nearly two generations, but the numbers at the top remain stubbornly low. This is a loss for an industry that will miss opportunities to hear from a greater diversity of perspectives.
For all the pain and disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic, there have been some silver linings in the evolution of workplace tools and expectations. For example, while many of us are a bit tired of virtual meetings by now, “Zoom Culture” has created a certain amount of democratization. When everyone is the same-sized box on a screen, it can be easier for individuals to speak up and speak out—even when they may have found it harder to do so in person.
And while we used to feel pressure to keep our personal and professional experiences walled off from one another, the reality of working from home has removed many of those walls—giving us more opportunities to see our coworkers as real people, with real lives and competing responsibilities. If we learn from it, a consequence of these changes can be a culture that is more empathetic, more understanding, and better equipped to build a flatter structure and a more caring community.
Erasing Gaps Isn’t Just Up to Law Firm Leaders
That’s a good start, but to make a real and measurable difference, we need to do much more. Going forward, we should find more ways to erase the gaps that women face and create the sense of belonging that all of us deserve. That work can’t be limited solely to firm leaders or coworkers, or left to women who are already overworked and overburdened. In order to create a sense of belonging, we all need to do our part.
For those in law firm leadership, that means seeking out opportunities to mentor others. Not just when it is easy or convenient. To build the future of our firms and the industry, we need to mentor and sponsor that future now. And it doesn’t look like our past. Whether you are a man or a woman, mentorship needs to be a part of a firm’s culture—not only because it helps guide talented lawyers, but because it creates a connection that can encourage us to serve our firm and our clients more meaningfully and, therefore, more effectively.
Since most law firms still heavily skew male at the senior levels, simple math tells us that men especially need to step up and actively look for opportunities to mentor women.
For those who aren’t in leadership, there’s still plenty to do. Being an ally to individuals who are too often left behind helps us learn from each other and expand our skill sets. We all do better when we are able to work thoughtfully and collaboratively with one another, and by creating durable support networks, we can build stronger relationships and a better firm.
Finally, if you are a woman at a big law firm and your sense of belonging is still a little off, consider an effort to make that daunting professional world smaller by creating your own mini-culture. Remaking the culture of a large law firm can seem like an impossible task—but building a supportive community of mentors and allies who value and respect you is an achievable goal.
Find the people around you—more senior, more junior, and at your level—with whom you feel an authentic connection. Imagine yourself at the center of your own community, and make it a point to build caring, authentic relationships, and connect with others who have your interests at heart.
There’s no doubt that we have a great deal of work to do. Big Law will not build a more inclusive culture overnight. But it’s clear that change is needed, and that all of us must play a role and take action to make law firms a place where everyone can belong.
This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.
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Hilary L. Preston is a vice chair of Vinson & Elkins and is a member of the Management Committee and the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Executive Committee. She leads the firm’s Intellectual Property & Technology Litigation practice and focuses her litigation practice on intellectual property litigation and commercial disputes.