That’s the question that a recent ABA headline blared: Are YOU paying enough attention to upward mobility, ladies? Let’s discuss… or, you know, mock relentlessly. Your choice!
Big thanks to a reader at CorporetteMoms who alerted us to the piece, commenting, “Is anyone else as angry as Tracy LeRoy is that the ABA [Journal] published a piece about how women lawyers who are mothers are terrible managers, overly perfectionist, and don’t support other team members?” Corporette readers were also discussing it a bit yesterday. With that kind of question we had to look closer — and we’ll be discussing it both here and at CorporetteMoms today.
So this is an opinion piece in the ABA Journal, and after the outrage started, they hastily slapped on a disclaimer: “The ABA is deeply committed to securing the full and equal participation of women in the ABA, the profession and the justice system. The ABA Journal is committed to covering all issues of importance to women in the law, and we acknowledge the many concerns expressed to us by those offended by this piece.” Alrighty then!
Here’s the info provided about the author of the piece:
Susan Smith Blakely is a former partner, law career counselor and the author of the Best Friends at the Bar book series for female lawyers. Her most recent book is What Millennial Lawyers Want: A Bridge from the Past to the Future of Law Practice. (Apparently, in past publications she’s advised women to “stop complaining and show ‘true grit.'”)
Her essential point in the piece is that people who don’t focus on “team building” and “career mentoring” are unlikely to be promoted to partner. She specifically targets lawyers who are mothers, saying that they “live only in the moment” while putting in “their best efforts in keeping all the balls in the air,” and fail to see that “a career is not just about personal success.” What moms aren’t doing enough is thinking of the FIRM.
More and more law firms are taking the team approach, and all members of the team have to be able to count on each other. Team members have to know that help is around the corner, and that emails will be returned with valuable information and in time to put out the wildfires. And those requirements are equally true for women lawyers—whether they have children or not.
Motherhood is demanding. Too often, lawyer moms are so stretched and overscheduled that they cannot easily find time in their days to assist others. They focus on their own workloads and maximize their time between arrival at the office/logging in and leaving the office/logging out. Many of them do not take lunch breaks or have many conversations with colleagues, and they lose interest in promoting new work for the law firm, developing clients and attending firm social events. They are exhausted.
Smith Blakely notes that lawyer moms are their “own worst enemies,” writing that they’re typically perfectionists, and “end up sacrificing good performance on the altar of perfection.” She notes that these busy moms don’t have time to give quality feedback to the young lawyers reporting to them.
But it is not only the young associates who notice. Promotion committees understand that a manager who shows little interest in the careers of his or her reports impacts the “growth mindset” considered essential to the upward mobility of young lawyers and success for the firm. … Effective mentoring and leadership are essential to successful business models, and as challenging as it can be for lawyer moms, they must be willing to be team players and invest time in the careers of others.
She ends by saying that these women “should be the survivors and future leaders we know they can be.”
A partner at law firm Yetter Coleman LLP, Tracy LeRoy, took issue with the opinion piece and the ABA Journal’s publication of it, noting that
The most damaging aspect of this column is the claim that lawyers who are mothers are the worst managers and not team players. The author blithely advises that people who are not good managers — including, apparently, any lawyer who is a mother — just need to do more to prove themselves and work harder at these skills. Completely ignoring decades of implicit bias hampering women’s rise to partnership, the author posits that lawyers who are mothers just don’t want to do the work to be promoted and therefore can’t complain when they aren’t.
This claim supports and encourages three false stereotypes: (a) that women don’t help other women; (b) that women are bad leaders in the workplace; and (c) that mothers are unable to give bandwidth outside their own families to assist others.
She goes on to note that in her experience senior women are some of the MOST gracious with their time and energy in fielding all matters of questions from junior associates, and that in BigLaw, “senior women partners bear a heavier administrative load because firms want diverse practice group leaders, committees, and task groups — and women take it on because we know that our presence will make for a better product for our firm and our clients.”
I’m curious what you think, readers, but I tend to agree with LeRoy in my experience with the women lawyers who are mothers whom I’ve worked with. I also tend to agree with LeRoy that pieces like the one Smith Blakely wrote (and the ABA Journal published) are what drive mothers OUT of law firms, or make them decide not to have kids at all. (There’s also something to be said about the fact that many women may have a clear view of their career goals, and those goals may not include equity partnership, which, after all, has been often described as a pie-eating contest where the prize is more pie.)
So what do you think? Some questions to focus the discussion — please note in your comment whether you’re a parent or not.
- Do you think Smith Blakely was correct that mentorship and quality feedback are among the top qualities that law firms are looking for when they choose who to promote?
- Whether you’re a lawyer or not, do you think the “three false stereotypes” LeRoy noted exist at your company?
- What have you seen your company/firm do to dispel the stereotypes and retain women?
Stock photo (women mentoring each other!) via Stencil.
I don’t agree with the notion that internal teamwork is the most important thing leading to advancement. Business development is the most important factor.
Amen — life is different if you have a book of business.
Yeah, at my former biglaw firm one of our 5 highest paid equity partners was a woman. She was notorious for being a terrible mentor (she only developed one associate through the partnership in the entire 8 years I was at the firm), she didn’t take on any internal firm administrative work (no hiring committee service, no running the summer program, etc.), and she was in general an unpleasant person to deal with (if she didn’t think you were important, she wouldn’t even bother remembering your name – she could never remember mine and we were partners in the SAME PRACTICE GROUP). But money talks, and she had a massive book, and so she got paid the big bucks and was on the managing committee of the firm.
Agreed. I think the opposite is more the case. In my experience, women are more likely to take on internal teamwork oriented assignments. I also think women are expected to do this to a greater degree, and it’s a negative for a woman if she’s not an eager volunteer, whereas many men get a pass. But I don’t think women who manage the associate hiring process, or organize firm community service projects (I’ve personally done both of these things!) are rewarded for that when it comes to compensation or promotion decisions. People won’t like you if you don’t step up, but they also won’t reward you if you do.
Anon ex partner
Yep I did all those things (hiring etc) and still got denied equity and then pushed out. All before I even became a mom. It is all about the business development. Unless you are of a socio economic status such that you rub elbows with those that can pay big law fees, you have to either do a long game by developing your peers as clients which takes forever and a bit of luck OR you are transitioned business by older partners who share “credit” with you. Despite doing large chunks of work I did not benefit from much credit sharing. I do think men shared more with other men or the people they had the most in common with which is usually similar men. We did have some women who I know were transitioned business but it was rare and always had a whiff of tokenism.
The only business I received from my male colleagues was when folks were passing along accounts or RFP responses they thought were dogs. Fortunately, they were not always right about what was a dog!
Ugh. This nonsense. I’m a mother of 3, a partner, and a trial attorney. I like to think I’m a decent mentor, but of course that’s not really for me to say. I devote a lot of time to the Firm.
What we need is more women, including mothers, in higher up positions being good mentors, bad mentors, and middling mentors–just like we have men. No one generalizes that all white men are perfectionists, but some of them definitely are. It’s my job to be the best partner, litigator, mother, etc. that I can be–not to be the standard bearer by which all women, mothers, etc. are judged. The reason we don’t get the grace to get things wrong is because there are not very many of us, and the demands put on us are not actually possible to accomplish.
RR, what is your husband doing? Why should you do everything? I bet he is taking advantage of you. Keep a sharp eye on him b/c he could be milking you dry, as my Dad told me my ex was. FOOEY in men like that!
Bad enough the ABA published this drivel, why give this more airtime and clicks? Disappointed in you, Kat.
I think the response is even more important than the article, and we need to shed light on this and have this discussion. I am glad for this post!
I find the ABA generally to be pretty irrelevant and this reads like clickbait… so I can’t bring myself to have actual opinions about this exchange.
I found a Q&A with the author from before the article was published in which she out and out says this advice (I’ll reply with a link so it can go through mod): …If children are in your futures—or if you know that you will have responsibility for other family members—you may want to look at practice settings beyond law firms. Some of those settings, like in-house counsel, practice in nonprofit organizations, and public sector practice, provide greater opportunities for flexible time, part-time practice, and less travel and stress.
If you do choose the law firm route, you should consider the kinds of practice areas that may be more compatible with the personal responsibilities that you anticipate. Litigation, both civil and criminal, and merger and acquisition practices tend to be very stressful and inflexible, whereas code practices like tax and bankruptcy, as well as non-litigation settings like transactional work and estates and trusts, may prove more advisable.
here is a link to the full Q&A:
This woman doesn’t know a thing about transactional practice if she thinks that’s low-stress and family friendly. I was in a biglaw M&A practice at a firm that had a grand total of one female equity partner in the entire national corporate group.
The rest of her advice to women is basically “imitate all the obnoxious things men do.” Lovely.
She really blames women instead of the firms!
I am a litigator and a mother, at a firm! I don’t want to work in house or do transactional work.
It took me a while, but I am finally at a firm where mothers are killing it. Making partner, growing books of business, leading the way. It is entirely because the firm is not sexist. The answer is for firms to be less sexist, not for women to opt out of practice areas.
If a company is interested in having good talent, it will understand that half of the talent comes packaged in female form, and doing things that disproportionately harm women, e.g., mommy-tracking, discrimination, or just plain making it hard for women to succeed, will result in them losing or at least not promoting a large portion of talented employees. If the company shows that it isn’t interested in promoting and nurturing talented employees, I’m not interested in turning myself inside out for whatever asinine standards they employ that are really just a cover for “we don’t like women.”
This article deserves zero linking/clicks/airtime. It’s meandering and makes broad, unsupported claims (“the managers they most complain about are the lawyer moms”– what?!)
I don’t appreciate being labeled a “lawyer mom” (my co-workers are literally never referred to as “lawyer dads”). I also have never seen a male lawyer criticized for not mentoring or whatever – it’s always assumed that they are too busy with legal work vs the assumption in this article that it must be the kids. Beyond that, I don’t think the author’s points are coherent or timely enough to deserve actual discussion or attention.
To me, the only genuine questions are 1) why the ABA would publish the article in the first place; and 2) whether I should cancel my ABA membership immediately, even though my firm pays for it.
Oh look, another out-of-touch boomer “consultant” who probably couldn’t hack it in her own professional life, striving for some kind of relevance and (continuing cash flow) to keep herself afloat until she can claim Social Security at full retirement age. “If she’s so successful, why isn’t she retired on an island somewhere,” is what I always think when I see pieces like this. This person is writing about “bridging the gap” between law firms and the millennial workforce? Huh.
OTOH, I am sure she wrote the piece to get attention, and she got it, so she’s probably the real winner of this little debacle. I wish her well on her long slow slide back into obscurity from here.
I am so sick of non millennials telling me, a millennial, what I care about. They are never correct.
Also, most of them seem to forget that millennials have started turning 40. The 22 yo new grads are a completely different generation.
Generational theory is largely pseudo-psychology, and we’d all do well to exhibit some empathy for different cultural experiences—whether those experiences are a function of age or something else. I’m exhausted by think-pieces and consultants eternally suggesting that “next generation,” whatever that generation is, is a whole new species of human being.
IANAL but I still found this offensive and off-base, in terms of what I know about professional women and moms in particular.
I think people are good managers or bad managers and it has nothing to do with whether they are a mother. In my experience, lawyers have been the worst managers compared to my experience in other corporate settings. There is innate competitiveness in law firms that impacts management of associates,
The pervasive assumption that it is harder from working moms than working dads in our society does the most to drive bias. Just look at all the pieces about how hard Covid has been on working women. It must make some managers assume the men on their staff are better workers.