Dear White Men: You Are the Key to Women’s Success in Law Firms

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For women to achieve more success in law firms, they need to demand more of white male allies and those men need to deliver, a Seattle University School of Law professor says. She adds that firms must create a structure that will encourage white men to learn how to mentor differently and that will reward them, both with status and money, for doing it well.

Brooke Coleman

By Brooke D. Coleman

Brooke D. Coleman, a Professor of Law and Associate Dean for Research & Faculty Development at Seattle University School of Law, is an expert in civil procedure and federal courts. Her current research focuses on the intersection of civil procedure and feminism.

Judge Jack B. Weinstein, a lion of the federal bench, just announced a new court rule to encourage law firms to allow their junior lawyers to argue before him, the goal being to increase the number of women who get these coveted opportunities.

Weinstein and his new rule are being lauded, but a broader lesson from this episode has been missed. Weinstein did not come up with the idea for this rule on his own. To the contrary, he had lunch with Shira Scheindlin, a former federal judge who had a hand in a report by the New York Bar Association documenting how little women speak in courtrooms.

Over lunch, Scheindlin spoke with Weinstein about the report and encouraged him to change his individual courtroom rules. He did.

The lesson? We need to demand more of white male allies and those white male allies need to deliver.

Decrying the Plight of Women in Law Firms

Recent news stories, academic scholarship, and even a new documentary decry the plight of women and their lack of relative success in law firms. They are right.

While women have been attending law school in an equal number to men since 1996, they are currently only 36 percent of the legal profession and only 21 percent of law firm partners. Even worse, when women achieve partnership at a law firm, they earn 44 percent less than their male counterparts.

Why aren’t there more women in the upper echelons of legal practice and why do female partners who make it get paid so much less? Well, the answer to that question is obviously complicated, and luckily some smart people are working on solid ideas for change.

However, there is one part of the calculus we are not discussing enough, or in some cases, at all. That is, women need white men as allies, and we need them as allies right now.

Establishing a Client Base

Legal partnerships are set up to award partners for the business they bring in to the firm. At least one study has shown that male and female partners with the same amount of seniority have completely different client bases.

The male partners—in general—do not originate their clients. Instead, those clients are passed down to them by senior partners. In contrast, female partners originate almost all of their clients.

The result is clear: Male partners get a leg up from senior male partners while female partners are left to create their own books of business.

The argument is not that something nefarious is occurring. Undoubtedly some male partners engage in active sexism, but a lot of the basic nepotism is a result of human nature. Experts call this homophily—the idea that we like people who look like us because we find it easier to be around them. So for example, when a male partner looks at the pool of new hires, he is simply attracted to the person with whom he easily bonds—one of the other white guys in the group.

White Men in Power Must Modify Their Instincts

While the white male partners’ mentorship of other white men may not be malevolent, it is still a significant problem. The answer to that problem requires white men in power to take responsibility for modifying their instincts, and it requires law firms to take responsibility for incentivizing and rewarding that behavior modification.

More specifically, law firms should require all their partners to be trained on how to mentor individuals who do not share their identity characteristics. Training is not enough though. The law firms must put their money where their mouths are by rewarding partners who successfully mentor women (and men of color) and by punishing those who do not.

Stated differently, law firms must do more than require mere attendance at diversity and inclusion training seminars. They must instead create a structure—much like their partnership incentive structures—that will encourage white men to learn how to mentor differently and that will reward them, both with status and money, for doing it well.

Engage, Learn, and Change

If we want women to succeed in law firms, our white male allies must engage, learn, and change.

Institutional barriers are too entrenched for us to rely on our persistence alone. After all, women keep going to law school, but they are not becoming highly paid, powerful lawyers in commensurate numbers.

So, white men, I hope you are listening. We are talented human beings, and we deserve the same opportunities as the next white guy.

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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