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BigLaw: Women in Large Law Firms: The Enemy Within?

By Liz Kurtz | Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Originally published on March 1, 2011 in our free BigLaw newsletter. Instead of reading BigLaw here after the fact, sign up now to receive future issues in realtime.

Last spring, I published in BigLaw, Large Firms Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, which focused on the ongoing struggle for gender parity in large law firms, and on the issues that continue to render the large firm environment hostile to women despite our significant presence in the legal profession (and, for the record, in every other notable field of human endeavor except the MLB, NFL, and NHL). Subscribers were quick to share their reactions, relating stories of perpetual work-life imbalance, pay inequity, and the barriers faced by ambitious women who toil in the unforgiving vineyards of large firms.

A few months later, I addressed in Female Lawyers Just Want to Have Fun But a Good Man Is Hard to Find the grim plight of all the single ladies — or at least those who happen to be law firm associates — who attempt to navigate a world far more hostile than that of the large firm — the dating scene. Again, subscribers responded in force, sharing tales of woe, insights on the perils of looking for Mr. Right, and general lamentations on the apparent incompatibility of love and law — or, specifically, biglaw.

The responses I received were kind, supportive, and had the "thank you for sharing!" genuineness that made me thankful the sisterhood of lady lawyers. In other words, when it comes to the challenges facing women in large firms, we're all in this thing together, right? Right?

The Enemy of My Enemy Is … My Enemy?

To quote a most unwomanly source, "Not so fast, my friend".

Exhibit A: This recent email from a BigLaw subscriber, whom we'll call "Lucy." Lucy writes:

"I appreciate your efforts (and those of others in the media) to bring to light the difficulties of being a woman in the man's world of biglaw, whether in terms of pay, workplace dynamics, or the perpetual challenge of balancing life and work. But can we talk about the elephant in the room, please? It's not always 'the man' who is keeping us down. In my experience, the enemy isn't necessarily the guys you work with: it's the other women. I've talked to a number of girlfriends about this and, basically, survey says: women make crappy bosses. They make crappy mentors. Unfortunately, they often make crappy colleagues. Don't get me wrong: I work with women who I admire and look to for professional guidance. But don't tell them I said that."

First of all: thank you for sharing, Lucy. Alas, I wish I could tell you that your experience, though unfortunate, was a singular aberration. Apparently, it's not.

Can We All Just Get Along? Um, No.

Exhibit B: An email from Dawn, another BigLaw subscriber and correspondent. Says Dawn:

"When I started at my current firm, I was no stranger to the difficulties of associate life. But, after years of working in biglaw, I knew what to expect, and I felt pretty comfortable with my ability to handle the typical crap — long hours, condescending bosses, the constant struggle to balance work and life, and the general disregard, at the firm, for those efforts. What continues to surprise me, though, is the relentless criticism from one of the female partners I work with. It's not the nitpicking about copy or the constant weekend assignments that bother me: it's the fact that she can't stop reminding me that every success I have is because of the way I look. If I win a motion in court, she immediately asks me what I was wearing. If I recount an exchange with opposing counsel in which I feel that I did well, she'll say something like, 'Well, they know what you look like, don't they?' She's worse than a man. Ladies! Can't we all just get along? Again: apparently not. But why?"

Well, posits Veronica (a senior associate at a large firm in Chicago), the oft-cited statistics and studies about the hardships of life as a woman in the big, male world of law may offer an explanation. "When it comes to large law firms, women are competing for scarce resources, too," she says. "Partners aren't being made the way they once were, and women partners are still a fraction of the number that are. It may not be a conscious calculation, but women are probably more likely to view their immediate competition as other women — whether they are or not. Unfortunately, that attitude is not conducive to team play, "You go, Girl!"-style support, or solidarity within the ranks."

Another subscriber — large firm partner Jessica — expands on this point. "All this talk of 'gender parity' is well and good," she told me recently, "but let's face it: women are different than men, which means that they work, react, and process experiences differently. Women tend to take criticism more personally, for example." She hesitates before continuing. "I'm going to be lambasted for saying this," she warns, "but we also tend to let jealousy and insecurity color that process of personalization, even if the criticism is totally innocuous."

"It's true," says Deanna (a large firm associate with whom I spoke) when I tell her about Jessica's take on things. "There may be a dark, ugly seed of jealously lurking in even the most outwardly accomplished female professionals, which was probably planted there in high school. Women look at other women — especially if they're younger, more attractive, or particularly popular with male co-workers — and, instead of being happy for their success, feel threatened. I hesitate to say this, but if there's nothing legitimate to criticize, we tend to revert to the old standbys: she's a tramp, and that skirt makes her butt look fat."

According to my informal poll, women at all levels of the biglaw hierarchy share this deeply catty — and apparently deeply shameful — urge. Though many agreed that women often let personal bias based on nonprofessional qualities (such as looks, age, and perceived sex appeal to male coworkers) color their professional opinion of female colleagues, none wanted to be identified as doing so. Said one associate, who is struggling with a female supervisor, "Every encounter we have feels like a tense deposition. I wish we could just stop the dep and get a ruling from the judge that we're BOTH pretty."

Run With the Pack, Not Against It

What, if anything, can we do to ease the intra-squad squabbling? Jessica, the partner, suggests that women — at all levels — focus on the basics. "Don't play up your sexuality at work," she says. "Don't gossip about your female coworkers. Don't act differently around the men in your office than you do around the women." Most importantly, she adds, "Be nice! Make friends with women you work with. Women tend to circle one another like wary animals. Don't be afraid to make the first friendly overture — it's not a sign of weakness."

Thank you, Jessica. We'd love to hear your thoughts, BigLaw subscribers, so click the Comment link below.

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Topics: BiglawWorld | Law Office Management
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