Women in Law Part 2: Cracks in the Glass Ceiling

The term “glass ceiling” was first coined in 1978 by Marilyn Loden but became popular in the 1980s as a term to describe women getting stuck in middle management by an unseen barrier. Today the term is used frequently to describe the elite positions women and other minorities cannot reach through an unseen but perceived limitation.

Laying the Groundwork

It seems American women lawyers have been laying the groundwork to break the glass ceiling in law firms for decades, yet still have not been able to penetrate the barrier on a consistent basis. Why is it taking so long?

Recently thirty large law firms in the US pledged to try the new “Mansfield rule” which is a variation of the NFL’s “Rooney rule”. The Mansfield rule asks that law firms consider women and minorities at a rate of at least 30 percent of the candidates for leadership and governance roles, promotions to equity partner, and for lateral positions. However, it does not require a certain percentage receive those positions. This is one step towards ending gender bias, but it is not enough.

Law360’s ranking of top law firms for women say they have been laying the groundwork for years to help women thrive in their firms. Firms that have more than 40 percent female attorneys tend to look at a more diverse recruiting pool, encourage flexible schedules, and provide leadership and professional development programs such as mentorship, according to The 2017 Law360 Glass Ceiling Report. Yet, there is a concern that the groundwork has been slow and results minimal and this won’t change without education, commitment and action by many men and women attorneys.

Forward Movement for Women Lawyers

Looking back only 36 years to 1981, there were no women sitting as United States Supreme Court Justices, and today there are three. This is a huge step forward for women lawyers. However, it may actually be female counterparts working at in-house roles that lead to the law firm glass ceiling breaking. Going back to 2011, already 36% of top legal positions in corporate legal departments were held by women according to the 2011 Minority Corporate Counsel Association survey. Corporate clients have begun asking for diversity, including that of women partners, from their outside counsel. Starting back in 1999, the General Counsel at BellSouth Corp. led a group in-house counsel to sign a statement promising to consider law firm diversity when hiring outside counsel. Today, corporate legal departments don’t just ask firms to have diverse groups of attorneys. They are asking outside counsel to put diverse attorneys in leadership positions, and they’re asking for data to back it up according to author Stephanie Russell-Kraft in her article, “Companies Use Diversity Data to Hold Law Firms Accountable.”

Recently, The American Bar Association created a model diversity survey and supplied it to corporate counsel to use to collect data from outside counsel on the diversity of their firms. One large company that took a lead in making a change was Microsoft. Microsoft revamped their diversity program and added bonus payments to diverse outside counsel according to David Ruiz, in his article, “Legal Departments Ask Firms for Diversity, Make Efforts In-House,” Corporate Counsel, April 5, 2017.

It appears, little by little, the glass ceiling in law firms is cracking but at a much slower pace than other professions and it is going to take a lot of progress to be smashed. “We say we live in a modern society, but gender inequality is still evident in several professions, including the law,” says Joyce Smithey, “Women and Legal Professional: Four Common Obstacles Faced by Female Lawyers,” January 13, 2017.

Gender Bias in Law Firms: At What Cost?

There are many concerns, both short and long term, that firms need to be ready to face if either

conscious or implicit bias exists in their firms. Some of these “costs” are economic and others are the result of lacking progressive behavior including the lack of diverse employees, the loss of clientele, and time spent re-hiring and training positions. Not only does a firm risk litigation and the opportunity to strengthen their applicant pool, if potential female applicants do not see your firm as a place they can grow and be seen as an equal to their male counterparts, you could be losing top attorneys and paying clients to your competition.

In 2016 alone, three large firms were sued by current and former female partners for discrimination including in wages. As 2017 has begun, it appears this trend of discrimination lawsuits continues. According to The Board List: September 5, 5 Reasons Why Having Women in Leadership Benefits Your Entire Company,” women are better at problem solving, are more trusted as leaders, are more collaborative than men, and make terrific mentors.

Women also tend to excel at teamwork, do better than men when it comes to initiative, as well as have better follow-through and a better focus on results, according to Geri Stengel in a report, “Forget the Glass Ceiling: Build Your Business Without One.” They also have a positive impact on workplace policies according to The Rockefeller Foundation, “Women in Leadership: Why It Matters.”

Brad Smith, president and general counsel at Microsoft, says “You need to have diverse legal teams to understand the way the world works, because the world is diverse.” “Law Firms Risk Losing Corporate Work Unless They Promote Women,” by Laura Colby, December 9, 2016.

For these reasons and more, women at the top of law firms strengthen those firms as they are facing an enhanced competitive market. Now it is time for those female and male attorneys at law firms to ask themselves, “What can I do in the quest for diverse and equal standing in my firm?”

Read our first article published in our Women in Law series, here.