Moving Women Lawyers Forward: Education, Experience & Bias

Topics: Corporate Legal, Diversity, Law Firms, Midsize Law Firms Blog Posts, Talent Development, Women’s Leadership Blog Posts


Why are women lawyers not succeeding in the legal profession in proportion to the number of women graduating from law school? By this time — after 30 years of having women comprise at least 30% of law school graduates — we should see at least one-third of federal judges as women, the deans of law schools well represented, and the same for equity partners. Unfortunately, the facts don’t support the success.

So what’s the problem? If we had one answer then the problem would be solved. Many attribute the lack of success to women not having a large enough book of business. However, women historically have been the primary caregivers; and learning to balance family issues with caring for clients is very time consuming. As women, we have to be very strategic with our time as we develop business and to understand we don’t have to do it the same as the guys.

…Firms need to actively ensure that women have equal opportunities for experience and to work with the best clients.

Another issue may be implicit bias. In their research, Stephanie Scharf and Roberta Liebenberg challenge law schools to develop teaching tools to help women law students navigate the implicit biases they may face in the courtroom and to understand where their best opportunities lie to gain courtroom experience. Their study concludes that government litigation positions offer the best opportunity to first chair cases for women.

At the same time, firms need to actively ensure that women have equal opportunities for experience and to work with the best clients. Are the firm leaders reviewing metrics to determine if women had an equal opportunity when a client is transitioned? To be successful, women need to be part of client teams early on and to be placed in visible positions so the client understands their expertise and management skills. Clients can also play a role by pushing for more diverse teams.

Finally, we as women need to “lean in” and ask for what we want and need.

Silvia L. Coulter, a founding Principal of LawVision Group and a recognized leader in law firm business development strategy, believes “women generally hesitate to self promote and show aggressiveness because generally speaking, women tend to see those traits as not lady like or unfeminine; and to be fair, and again generally speaking, some men see strong women as pushy and negatively assertive.” She suggests women focus on their goals, build relationships with everyone and ignore the labels men and other women may give them.

Hopefully the current generation of women, coupled with diverse clients, will be more successful.