A Wake- up Call for Female law students Heads Up for Female Lawyers

A Professional Career Perspective

by John G. Kelly,  B.Com., LL.B., M.Sc. (international relations) M.A. (Jud.Admin) F.CIS

Why Female Lawyers are Opting into Female Law Firm

It is common place (in law firms) for men to be judged on their potential, while women are judged strictly on performance and need to prove their competence repeatedly. Men’s mistakes are more readily forgotten than those made by women. In short, generally speaking, women have to demonstrate greater levels of competence and proficiency and are held to higher standards than their male colleagues.[1]

No, this isn’t a bitter diatribe from a failed female lawyer who couldn’t make the grade. Roberta Liebenberg had a successful career as a partner in a big U.S. law firm but, to paraphrase her message, she saw the light and opted out of big law to form a very successful law boutique that was feminine workplace focused.Read about the real -life law firm  experience of  Hadiyah   Roderique, a woman of colour, in her recent Globe and Mail op ed article, “I would have to be twice as goodto be considered equal”[2]She provides an excellent account of how she re-invented her persona to fit into the big law firm culture. She continuously strove to do that much better than everyone else to fit into the male dominant culture of the law firm until she came to the realization that her preferred professional life and lifestyle were best pursued beyond the confines of big law.

A four-year undergraduate degree and three-year JD law degree demonstrates that the law graduate has been conditioned to bear down and get with the program. “Employers are looking for people who conform to the folkways of today’s workplace-people who look, talk and act like modern model workers.[3]” With professional services firms such as law firms, employers are looking for another attribute; an overachiever whose motivated by “a profound sense of insecurity[4]. The current generation of female law students and young and up and coming female lawyers are the products of the “new generation” of women who were told from grade school on that they could be just as good at everything that boys did if they just strove to achieve. Young girls got the message and became “insecureoverachievers” to make sure they would always be that much better. The law school population is now 50% female. Law firms are on the lookout for these “insecure overachievers”.  They can push them to max their billable hours by any and all means of overwork with the threat of being “culled” if they don’t do that much better than all of their peer associates.

Harvard University Law School (HLS) has participated in a series of studies on legal career trajectories that indicate “there is a general migration of HLS graduates out of the law firm sector”[5]. Many of these are females who have decided to let go of the constant struggle associated with being an “insecure overachiever”  and gravitate to becoming an achiever in their own right. What the HLS studies and other sources clearly demonstrate is that “Clearly, women are increasingly starting their own firms to do it their way”[6]

LLM Specialization is Key to Independence in the Legal Services Market

Starting your own law firm by going solo as an independent, forming a boutique, looking at in-house counsel, social enterprise careers or becoming a consultant contract lawyer  makes for invigorating chatter over a glass of wine (or two) with female classmates and junior and mid-level female associates  at week’s end. The good news is that there is a bourgeoning market for a new breed of lawyers in the legal services market; the specialist.

Most savvy and ambitious professionals today understand that it’s in their economic interests to become truly expert at one topic. Ideally, that one topic is both arcane (in the sense of not being easily learned) and critically important (meaning there’s a market for this skill).[7]

The JD is “just a degree” in what is becoming a crowded legal services market. Clients are now looking for specialists. The traditional pathway to specialization through the “seven- year itch” of starting  as a junior associate and being groomed to become a specialist partner is getting pushback from clients who will no longer support “earn while you learn” programs. Female lawyers tend not to be in that select first pick pack that the firms are willing to invest in bringing to full partner potential through the associate process. They can and should demonstrate their true achiever status and self-confidence by obtaining a graduate LLM and position themselves as specialists in a preferred area. UK law schools have taken the lead in developing a broad array of innovative on sight and “blended” (On Line) LLM degree programs that enable female lawyers with independent practice “niche” aspirations to continue to earn while they learn.

The New Paradigm Female Lawyer Enablers

The specialization enables you to make an independent decision about how you  choose to practice. Whether it’s solo as an independent, contract consultant to law firms on speciality assignments or boutique or in-house/social enterprise work you’re well positioned to collaborate; the key to successful practice.

In short, in serving clients today, it’s not enough simply to know how something is usually done; you have to come up with ways that it could be done far better, faster and cheaper, and ideally in a way that makes the recipient feel special- all of which generally require both specialization and collaboration.[8]

Fortunately, for female lawyers there is now a vibrant association in place that facilitates collaboration and networking. The National Association of Minority & Women Owned Law Firms (NAMWOLF)[9]is a U.S. based non-profit association that was formed specifically to provide female and minority lawyers with information and guidance on female focused law firm start- ups and networking. There is now an active Canadian chapter in place.

Of interest to female lawyers, whose numbers in law firms are used to qualify firms for work by major organizations who require evidence of diversity on staff, is that NAMWOLF is lobbying these organizations to go beyond diversity headcount in awarding contracts and to require demonstrable proof that qualitative work is actually being assigned to females. A combination of a specialist LLM designation and networking through NAMWOLF will enable female lawyers who do decide to stick with it and make their mark in law firms to position themselves as ideal lateral recruits for law firms needing to link diversity with specific assignments to female lawyers but wanting to promote “best practices” capability within the firm.

Female law firm boutiques are finding NAMWOLF to be invaluable in providing a network  for information and guidance in articulating a feminist vision that’s palatable to main stream client bases as well as developing professional service business plans. NAMWOLF expertise, guidance and support is invaluable to females wanting to set up solo practices.

Then there is the emergent high- end professional services “gig” economy. Female lawyers wanting to balance a professional career with family or preferred life-style commitments are finding out that they’re no longer “home alone”. UpCounsel[10]is a thriving high end “e-recruitment” lawyer referral service that uses a digital platform to match specialty lawyers with clients looking for innovative legal services providers. UpCounsel has all the characteristics of the classic “disrupter” that may well turn the lawyer recruitment industry “topsy turvy”.It’s interesting that the Clayton Christensen Institute, the acknowledged leading global strategist in predicting upheavals in established industries, has legal education, law firms and the legal services market as prime candidates for a major upheaval[11] Female law students It’s only a matter of time, and predictably a short time, until UpCounsel and a female focused UpCounsel enter the Canadian lawyer recruitment market. (More on this in my “New Paradigm Gig Law” perspective).

[1]Roberta D. Liebenberg. Women Lawyers : Big Firm Attrition -Small Firm Gains in The Relevant Lawyer –Reimagining the Future of the Legal Profession. Paul A. Haskins Ed. Chicago. American Bar Association at P. 57.

[2]Hadiyah Roderique, I would have to be twice as good to be considered equal, Toronto Globe and Mail, Saturday, Nov. 4th,2017.  PF3

[3]Bryan Caplan, The Case Against Education- Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money. Princeton. Princeton University Press. (2018) at P. 18

[4]Laura Empson, Leading Professionals – Power, Politics and Prima Donnas. Oxford. Oxford University Press. (2017) at P109.

[5]The Journals, The Places You’ll Go – Data on movement in lawyers’ careers. Boston. Harvard law School Center on the Legal Profession Volume 4, Issue 4 (2018)

[6]American Bar Association, Commission on Women in the Profession. The Road to Independence: 101 Women’s Journeys to Starting their Own Law Firms Chicago. American Bar Association (2011)at Pxii

[7]Heidi K. Gardner, Smart Collaboration. Boston. Harvard University Press. (2016) at P6.

[8]Ibid at P 35.



[11]Michele R. Pistone and Michael B. Horn. Disrupting Law School. How disruptive innovation will revolutionize the legal world. Boston. Clayton Christensen Institute.


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