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Reflections on the Profession: Why We Need More Female Leaders

June 26, 2011

I have long been aware, vaguely, of the persistent dearth of female leaders in the legal profession (notwithstanding some notable advances in recent decades). But I didn’t fully appreciate how scarce they still are until last week. My immediate boss is a woman and my entire office was, until recently, run by a woman. Meanwhile, the U.S. Secretary of State is a woman, Congressional Democrats have a female leader, and the Supreme Court now has three female justices for the first time. So, my picture of female leadership’s prevalence in the legal profession was a bit distorted. But I got a clearer picture at the YLD’s Diversity Reception last week from another highly successful female attorney, Bar Association Secretary Sophia Lee.

In her keynote address, Sunoco’s Chief Counsel in Litigation, armed with a quiver full of statistics, decried the under-representation of women and minorities in the legal profession, and in law leadership in particular. Compellingly, she noted that, although women form nearly half of all associates, they are outnumbered nearly 6 to 1 by men among partners (both locally and nationally). Consistent with her personality, Ms. Lee expressed optimism about the problem, but emphasized that its solution required awareness and engagement.

One important step forward is recognition of the advantages of female leadership. To debate whether women are equal to (or better than) than men in leadership roles is to miss the point. Research across various professions shows that women think and made decisions differently. For example, researchers studying finance, where women are a tiny minority, have found that women are demonstratedly less competitive, less concerned with status, and less inclined to take risks. This insight led Michael Lewis of Liar’s Poker fame to suggest that future economic meltdown might be prevented by ensuring that women occupied 50% of all “risk positions” at banks. Likewise, women in politics, also a distinct minority, stand apart. According to Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, women are motivated to enter politics to advance a cause, while men tend to view politics as a career path. Perhaps as a result, they appear to be less scandal-prone and harder working; for example, female members of Congress are considerably more active than their male counterparts by a number of metrics, according to research by Professor Kathryn Pearson of the University of Minnesota.

Therefore, because they think and act differently, the presence of both male and female leadership provides the strength of complementary styles. And, as I have mentioned previously, a forum for competitive reasoning tends to produce superior decision-making. For these reasons, law firms and legal organizations have much to gain from increased female leadership.

Readers: What law firms and legal organizations do a good job of cultivating and attracting female leaders, and how do they do it? Is the profession improving in this respect or treading water?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Newbie permalink
    July 5, 2011 10:55 am

    I think terms need to be defined. Does risk-taking mean successfully persuading others to take that risk or does it mean not taking the time to dot I’d and cross t’s before execution? Honestly, women lawyers are risk takers. Unfortunately, and it seems to be some dirty secret, we are not taken seriously or questioned more harshly. And that’s only when we’re not being forced to yell to be heard over male attorneys. I’ve noticed the exact same idea or strategy from a male attorney is quickly considered, evaluated, and executed. I’m not making accusations about gender bias but it may be beneficial for everyone in these firms to take a step back and observe the process before passing judgment on women attorneys or claiming they lack something to be a leader.

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  1. Reflections on the Profession: Reactions to the New-Lawyer Surplus by Prospective Law Students, Law Schools and the ABA « PhiLAWdelphia

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