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LAW PRACTICE MANAGEMENT: Fighting Feminenglish

Legions of women lawyers tell vivid horror stories about the frustration and humiliation of trying to navigate the legal profession. They describe the profession as an uneven playing field where they struggle for years to earn a place at the table only to be encouraged just to sit there and shut up.

All too often women lawyers experience an insidious and pervasive imbalance of power between male and female lawyers in law firms, in legal departments, and in law firm–client relationships. Communication remains asymmetrical.

A failure to communicate. After graduating at the top of her Ivy League law school class, Linda was recruited to the litigation department of a major national firm. After six years of practice, she realized that most of her peers were men. It also became clear that she was not getting any client contact and was being denied even age-appropriate litigation responsibilities. Clearly, Linda was being marginalized; her voice was neither being sought nor heard.

When she raised her concerns, a male partner encouraged Linda to “step up and speak up.” So, she did. In team meetings, she provided innovative approaches to problems. In return, she got radio silence. She also saw that the approaches she had suggested were often embraced days later when someone else, invariably a male, trotted them out as his own. When she politely pointed out that the idea had been hers and that she would like to participate in implementing it, she was taken aside and told that she was “not being a team player” and that she should not “rock the boat.” Surprised at being admonished for doing what she’d been advised to do, and not wanting to damage her chances for advancement, Linda sat back and pulled back. Evidently, this was the way for a woman to be a team player.

Linda’s story is painfully common—so much so that we have coined a sarcastic neologism, “feminenglish,” to describe a distinct intergender language. This dialect reflects circumscribed authority, second-tiered roles, and the overwhelming importance of not giving offense, lest one be humiliated, criticized, ostracized, labeled as difficult, or simply ignored in the course of communications.

Feminenglish frequently flies in formation with other forms of male-dominated group communication, for example, “manterruption,” in which female speakers are constantly interrupted, and “bropropriation,” the tendency of some men to claim women’s ideas as their own.

Costs and consequences. Stifling the voices of highly skilled and high-potential female lawyers is not just a sociological or motivational disgrace; it represents an incredible underutilization of talent. It is, moreover, fueling an alarming exodus of females from the profession.

Many women report that even if they don’t leave, they have resigned themselves to functional underemployment. In the course of our legal project management (LPM) consulting, a female partner in a major litigation firm told us that, in response to client demands, her firm had “gotten LPM religion.” “Our process and LPM technology now are quite good,” she said, “but it’s really interesting: When it comes to staffing our teams, it’s always the men who do the frontline, client-facing lawyering. And it’s always the female lawyers who are assigned the backroom LPM functions—all the administrative busywork. We’ve even given ourselves a name: The LPM housewives. We do all the domestic work, but we seldom get the chance to show what we can do as lawyers or to interface with the client.”

Who’s to blame? Today’s law firms are laden with male lawyers who both compel women’s use of feminenglish and are tone-deaf to it. They dismiss the whole gender communication issue as an artifact of whining women having chosen to play where the Big Boys play. Or they think that women have chosen to disempower themselves by introducing the tension between childbearing and a legal career into the male/female power equation.

Frankly, we think that this argument lets a lot of insensitive guys off the hook. Focusing on the issue of intent—debating the motives of those who wield unequal communications clout—is not as useful as analyzing the impact of asymmetrical communication. But, because this group acknowledges neither intent nor impact, we can hardly expect them to spontaneously change their stripes.

What can be done? Because it is a symptom of a complex constellation of forces, feminenglish probably can’t be addressed through simple fixes. There are, however, three basic strategies that women and men can practice and preach that may help redress the imbalance of communication power in daily legal practice.

Fix yourself. Practicing more assertive interpersonal demeanor can really improve one’s intergender communications, clout, and confidence. Although mastering a repertoire of more assertive behaviors isn’t easy, it’s essential in the face of almost total lack of reinforcement from one’s male law firm colleagues.

However, because communication is a two-way street, we cannot cure systemic problems solely through individual self-development. The generally dismal record of law firm assertiveness programs and team-building training shows that women can’t rely entirely on self-help to produce fundamental changes either in attitude or behavior.

Build alliances. Lawyers tend to deny dysfunction. They are unwilling to acknowledge compromised communication, cry foul, or draw a line in the sand. This, of course, is particularly true of women lawyers, who have been schooled not to make waves.

The good news is that enlightened male lawyers exist who respect competency over power, who encourage, mentor, sponsor, and champion female colleagues. These men aren’t afraid to delegate power and authority to women, listen, and collaborate effectively both with female clients and female colleagues. They can comfortably acknowledge gender as an obvious but secondary characteristic.

A particularly promising strategy for ameliorating communications inequality is to foster change through alliance building with the enlightened. In our experience, most law firm women’s initiatives fail to gain traction because they are targeted primarily toward women and often devolve into misery loving company. As Ida Abbott, long recognized as an effective champion of effective mentoring and intergender power parity, puts it, “So many women focus on building relationships with other women because it’s easier and more comfortable. But these relationships don’t tap into the generally more valuable and immediate opportunities that men can offer because men still control most firms, clients, and opportunities. So women also need to develop relationships and build networks with men, even if it’s harder and feels awkward.”

Enlist the customer. Because “the customer is always right,” it makes sense to have the customer help law firms do right by their female lawyers. If the sweeping changes in the legal profession’s new normal have taught law firms any lesson, it’s that the balance of power has shifted from the law firm to the client and that the client now defines the terms of service.

So far this shift in control has focused largely on demanding tighter budgets, lower legal costs, and better-managed legal service delivery. But as clients insist that their legal vendors minimize waste, they also can be called upon to focus on minimizing underutilization of human capital. Client organizations truly committed to diversity can, through their legal departments’ management of outside legal vendors, insist on more meaningful participation by women—more responsibility, more visibility, and more voice. This includes setting strategies, managing matters, managing the client relationship, and being the client’s go-to resource.

As more women are promoted to the roles of general counsel and senior in-house lawyer, the opportunity emerges to fundamentally alter the rules of engagement between male and female lawyers. The customer can impose changes on historically change-resistant law firms through economic leverage rather than moral persuasion.

ABA LAW PRACTICE DIVISION

This article is an abridged and edited version of one that originally appeared on page 56 of Law Practice, July/August 2016 (42:2).

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