Nevertheless, She Persisted

Years ago, I actually tried to have a meeting with the male partnership of my firm, regarding the various versions of the “Billy Graham Rule” that many of them seemed to follow, whether stated or not. “I won’t ride in a car with a woman.” “I won’t go to drinks after work with a woman.” “I won’t eat alone with a woman.” I wanted to make it clear to them how this rule was harming the female associates of the firm. They weren’t interested in hearing it, and now I have left there to work at a firm where my group (NOT my firm, but my group) is 60% women, 50% African American.

Women present a pool of excellent talent – many law schools boast a predominantly female top 10% of their class. We start out at about 50-50 in law firms (the only area of law I have worked in – and I’m in the South, so the perspective I’m about to describe is distinctly southern). And yet we tend to fall out of the profession precipitously, at about the 7 year mark – and those that stick it out do not advance in the way that men do. We make less than men. Less than 20% of firm equity partners are women. See this link for the ABA’s latest statistics on women in the legal profession, and please remember throughout your reading of this three page set of charts and graphs that women make up fifty percent of the population and fifty-plus percent of the law school graduating classes.

If you’re going to argue that all women are just worse at (or less enamored of) the law and drop out because we hate it, or because all men are better than all women and this is a meritocracy in action, or women are innately better at and more suited to non-professional domestic activities such as raising babies and cleaning house, then I have nothing to say that will interest you, and you can stop reading. This attitude, flung in the face of all of my accomplishments and striving to get where I am, is one I simply have no time for. However, if you understand that I, and many of my female colleagues, are as brilliant, skilled, ambitious, and promising in our legal talent as the men we went to law school with, then please stick around for further discussion of how norms such as the Billy Graham Rule disproportionately harm us.

In many/most professional jobs, but particularly the legal field, your ability to advance is almost entirely dependent on your ability to make relationships and connections with the people in charge, so that when good, career-advancing work comes up, they staff you on it. In law firms in particular, you are running against a ticking partnership clock that will bring you up against a vote for whether you stay or go, at about year 10 (or 12, or 14 – depends on the firm and on your readiness). It’s up or out – either you make partner, or you go find another job (generally – on occasion you can be made “counsel” or “staff attorney” or something like that instead, but that is not formalized and also depends on the relationships I’m about to describe). In order to make partner, the existing partnership must vote to decide whether you get it.

The underlying issue is,  you must garner majority vote, meaning a majority of the existing partnership must know about you, and decide that you are someone with whom they want to share the profits of the law firm, and to whom they want to bind themselves legally in a business contract. Out of this singular reality, several sub-issues emerge: (1) you must have one or more cheerleader partners who will spend years evaluating the key players in the partnership, make sure your name comes up numerous times in a positive context so the others are familiar with you and see you as a valued asset to the firm, will lay the groundwork for your elevation to partnership years before the vote occurs, and will lobby for you around when it’s happening; (2) you must be known as a high achiever in one or more areas – either as a rainmaker who gets clients and brings in work, as an amazing service-lawyer who has deep relationships with clients, even if they aren’t technically “yours,” and who gets results; and/or (3) you must bill a lot of hours, bringing in a great deal of money. Another potential subset is that you have a niche practice, and while perhaps you don’t have tons of your own clients, everyone else’s clients need you when that sub-set issue arises (example: immigration. You can help process H1B visas for everyone else’s clients, a very particularized and tricky process that a generalist lawyer would struggle to do well. Losing the immigration lawyer would mean you have to outsource that work to another firm – risky, as they may decide they like the new firm better for other work as well – and so the immigration lawyer has made herself indispensable.)

For every one of these paths-to-partnership, you MUST have deep, familiar, comfortable relationships with older partners. They supply the work that lets you bill the big hours, they supply the client face-time that lets you get the client-love, they can get you access to the marketing money for you to go develop your own clients or the education money that lets you go develop your own niche, and then they do internal firm marketing to assure everyone else funnels you the niche work, knows you’re there. They figure out early who the big-deal partners are and make sure you get staffed on assignments with those people; they figure out early who the awesome clients are and share access to those people so the firm would be losing a big familiar face for a big client if you go. I cannot stress enough how vital these relationships are.

ENTER: the Billy Graham rule, and all of the subconscious, unspoken variants of same.

Older partners are 80+% men. This lopsided statistic is perpetuated for all the reasons I’m about to explain, making this a circular, self-reinforcing story. Law firm partners are also, FYI, on average about 12 years older than the CEOs/GCs of the clients they serve. This is a problem for a lot of reasons, not least of which being that law firm partnerships are dominated by strong-willed, powerful people who tend to place less value in many of the things their clients are focused on, such as technological advancement, diversity, and innovation – and they also tend to be more socially conservative than the people they serve. I won’t say that older business-people are universally dinosaurs, but law firms really could use a diversity in age, given the speed with which technology is advancing and the proven lack of interest in same by the law firm partnership – aka its business leaders, since law firms cannot be co-owned in any part by non-lawyers (thank you, pointless ethics rules). This lack of innovation causes a host of problems for business development, including that most law firm partners cannot use Microsoft Word, and still print (no joke) every single email, hole punch it, and stick it in a paper file. We pay ungodly amounts of rent on rooms full of giant drawers of  folders of emails that say “Thanks!” and “See you soon!” This is wasteful when we have redundancy in our servers that will safely save those emails in perpetuity, and can easily search them by any number of parameters in a way that poking through yards and yards of paper files will never do. Each associate probably has to bill at least 5 hours a month just to pay for all of the man-hours and storage of paper stuff we have ready access to in electronic files, because old dinosaur partners do not understand electronic storage.

It will not surprise you to learn that many of these men also tend to have outdated views about male and female relationships. In their circles, their stay-at-home-wives come to firm parties and go in a different room and chat, go shopping together, [do tons of backbreaking service in home and children that these men completely do not fully appreciate], serve on church committees and charity functions, and all in all move in separate circles from the men. The men are not entirely comfortable talking to females, outside rote small talk and little social niceties. The first two or three decades of their careers were spent in entirely male professional spaces, with female staff but no female equals.

Mix all this together, and to put it bluntly, professional women make them nervous. There are some powerful men who are openly hostile to women-as-professionals, but I’d wager a much large number of them are just not sure what to do with us. We don’t fit their very narrow view of females and female behavior, we don’t look like lawyers to them (bc for most of their career, all lawyers were men), they are not used to talking with us. Additionally, female associates are young women, which signals to them “DANGER. AFFAIR POTENTIAL.” They are keen to avoid the appearance of impropriety. For example, they would never drive a young woman from church to an event alone, or go to dinner with a former female classmate alone – these just feel inappropriate. While despite these “rules of conduct,” many of these men have nevertheless had affairs (the legal field is notorious for a high divorce and infidelity rate), they still have ingrained these rules for social interactions, as a way to broadcast fidelity, uprightness, and appropriateness. The care taken in interactions with females is as reflexive as opening a door for a woman . . . they don’t even really think about it, just do it.

This is an issue when the client is a female, of course, but it’s a greater internal firm issue. Young female associates need these relationships with older lawyers to get the work/connections/cheerleading that is required to advance, and they don’t get them because we make the men nervous. They will amble down the hall and duck in a male associate’s office daily for chit-chat, lunch, invite to a golf outing or baseball game, happy hour . . . and never us, because that wouldn’t be appropriate and besides, what would talk about? Ladies like . . shopping? Right? and manicures?

It is the aggregation of years and years of ignoring us, years of missed opportunities, that leads us to a partnership vote at year 10 where we can’t garner the votes needed because none of the people in power felt comfortable forming relationships with us. And many of us leave before year 10, because we’re tired of being passed over, tired of being ignored, tired of watching, day after day, as male partners and male associates head out to lunch and dinner and drinks and golfing and beach weekends and even sometimes strip clubs (YES), while we sit in our offices like wallflowers. Many of us (ME) try on our end to form those relationships, but the unspoken Billy Graham rule makes that a dead end. There are some partners who can talk to females without automatically treating us like secretaries or mysterious females, of course, but they are a minority – whereas the male associates have access to everyone.

This doesn’t even discuss how women disproportionately bear the cost of child-rearing, and are disproportionately penalized for parenting, nor does it discuss how often masculine traits (such as aggression, conflict, refusal to compromise) can be bad for a situation but are universally lauded, no matter the context. I’m not even hitting on how hard it is to dress as a female professional – no pantsuits, gotta be a skirt suit or the judge won’t like you, but the skirt can’t be too short OR too long, heel height is important as too high of a heel is slutty but too low of a heel is dowdy, etc. etc.

So, despite the fact that women’s brains and brilliance are readily available, that skilled, educated, and trained women are available in droves who will do good work for clients that are universally more diverse, more youthful, and more technologically savvy than the firm partnership . . . law firms are still stuck at an 80% male makeup, and will be for the foreseeable future. The Billy Graham rule is part of that. What strikes me as most irritating about this rule is that a large number of these men perform this rule (or variants thereof) as a way of broadcasting their fidelity, while simultaneously carrying on affairs. The rule is not effective, in other words – it does not accomplish what it’s supposedly designed to, which is to resist temptation and preserve marriage (link goes to a great blog post by a former evangelical minister’s wife, on why it’s ineffective).

However, the rule is effective at making my life worse. My children have fewer resources available to them because of this rule. My 401k is skinnier because of this rule. I have to work harder, longer, smarter, and more strategically than male associates because of this rule, and nevertheless I am paid less than those same associates because of this rule. In my firm, there are 121 partners. 22 of them are women. Of those women, about 4 are mothers, and the rest never married or had children (almost every one of the men is married with children – some of them have had multiple wives). All, in part, because of the stupid, BS, ineffective, fake piety of the Billy Graham rule.

And the men won’t hear it. They insist that men advance to greater degree than women on merit alone, which is a ridiculously insulting. Or because we don’t want to keep our careers, which I can guarantee you is not true. Any attempt to educate them, no matter how diplomatically presented, is met with a pretty quick pink slip. It’s demoralizing, and draining. I’m weary of it. I’m tired. I’m really, really tired.

Nevertheless. Nevertheless. She persisted.

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3 Responses to Nevertheless, She Persisted

  1. Kevin says:

    What an interesting story. It’s a common refrain. There are differences broadly speaking between men and women. As you note astonishingly few women who start a family also make it to the top of their profession compared to men, who seem to have it all. I see society struggling with balancing these forces. I try to recognize that money and professional success is just a small part of leading a rewarding life.

  2. Margaret says:

    This is a fantastic encapsulatation of this issue and why it’s a big deal. I wish I had it when I was trying to explain why this is such a big deal to my husband a few days ago! I don’t think he quite got it. For me, it’s happily been the counter-example– almost all of my mentors & supporters have been older men. If they hadn’t been willing to have lunch with me or work alone with me, I would be toast.

    Also holy cow law firms in the south. I can’t even. I was at a liberalish one in the west and it was rough enough. I would last two days at your job. You are awesome and very tough!

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