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Does the 'Dorothy Factor' Dominate at Top Law Firms?

There's an interesting column by Orrick partner Patricia Gillette up at The Am Law Daily. Gilette asks whether the failure of women to self-promote accounts for their under-representation in the upper ranks of top law firms.

She uses Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz to analogize:

She’s probably not the first person to come to mind if I asked you to name a female leader. Yet, think about it, Dorothy was a true leader. She identified the tasks at hand, formulated a plan, and overcame obstacles to reach her goals: a brain for the scarecrow, a heart for the tin man, and courage for the cowardly lion.

But when push came to shove, what did Dorothy ultimately ask for herself from the Wizard? Nothing. Instead, she preempted his attempt to even try to reward her, thereby letting the Wizard off the hook.

Some might say Dorothy's behavior represents the stereotypical female leader. She builds teams. She encourages collaboration and consensus. She reaches resolution efficiently. And, at the end of the day, she asks for no credit, no reward, no recognition. And thus, no one knows what she has done and no one thinks of her as a leader.

Gillette argues that men aren't inherently better than women in terms of legal acumen or bringing in business, yet they are offered more opportunities to build business because they're not shy about tooting their own horns. Gillette emphasizes:

Many women don't ask for business and career opportunities, for leadership positions, for chances to strut our stuff. Correspondingly, many women don't tell (read: acknowledge their wins) when they are successful. Instead, women tend to wait for the recognition and reward -- a wait that can last a career. This is not the sole reason or even the primary reason for the lack of women in positions of power, but it is a contributor.

Gillette offers a checklist of ways to solve the problem, recommending that firms institute formal processes for promoting lawyers of both genders for leadership and monitoring who is chosen to go on client pitches. But she adds that women must be more proactive as well, bringing a career plan to the firm, engaging with law firm leaders and using women's initiatives to pressure firms into expanding opportunities.

The WSJ Law Blog covers the story, with one commenter pointing out that:

Big law firms are simply not structured to promote female associates who have children and do not have a stay at home husband or a live-in nanny. There are not enough hours in the day to provide minimal parenting to your children, bill enough hours to be considered a “gunner” attorney, and get enough sleep/food/exercise to maintain a healthy balance. This is only appropriate, I suppose, since firms exist to make money, not to make lawyers happy.

I tend to agree. For many women, the point at which they would logically begin to ascend through the law firm ranks (after roughly four to seven years on the job) coincides with the point in their lives at which they have young children. And because raising children requires so much planning and management -- from signing up for sports and instrument lessons to choosing a school program -- that most women simply don't want to deal with management and strategy issues at a law firm at that time in their lives. It's far more manageable to simply write the briefs or take the depositions and leave the planning to someone else.

The trouble is that by the time many women reach a point where management and leadership on the job becomes more palatable, it's already too late. By then, women have either been removed from the partnership track or gained a reputation as a player, but not a leader.

That's why I don't think Gillette's ideas will work. Because if women don't want those opportunities, they won't take advantage of all of those fancy programs. In my view, the better solution is much simpler: Change the timing. Let women do the work at a stage in their lives when its compatible with their personal lives, and give them a chance to step back onto the leadership track when they have the time, focus and desire to take on those challenges.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on July 8, 2009 at 03:45 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)

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