Women have made their way into law firms and courtrooms. They have ascended to the top of some of the biggest firms and legal departments in the country. But that doesn’t mean they are happy.
In fact, more than half of the 464 young female lawyers surveyed recently by the Florida Bar’s Young Lawyers Division said they were satisfied only somewhat with their legal careers. They cited their top challenges as high stress and a lack of work/life balance — and most (75 percent) don’t even have children, yet.
For the Florida legal industry, the findings of the Women in the Legal Profession report reflect the opinions of a significant percentage of the state’s lawyers. Women make up 37 percent of the Florida Bar membership and 48 percent of the Young Lawyers Division, which includes all lawyers under age 36.
So, how can law firms keep their future women leaders and what can other professions learn from what female lawyers are saying?
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The women themselves provided the answer. When the female attorneys were asked how they could become more satisfied, their answers were in line with women polled in other professions: They want more respect, more money, equal opportunities to advance and more flexibility in their schedules. It’s that simple.
Susan Amaducci, Real Estate Practice Group Leader at Bilzin Sumberg in Miami, has soared to a partner position in her firm and believes if firms want to advance talented women, they will have to make individualized plans for each person’s success. “Everyone has obstacles and they are all different,” Amaducci says. “Women need to speak up and articulate what they need and management needs to have an open ear and create a plan that works for the attorney and the firm.”
Amaducci says that women don’t speak up because they are afraid, and that managers make assumptions rather than initiating discussions because they, too, are afraid. “They (women) assume once they ask about flexibility they are going to be black marked, but until they can have honest conversations about what they need, they can’t be successful,” she says. “Sometimes, little tiny adjustments make it so much easier.”
However, according to the survey, women lawyers say they are speaking up about work/life balance needs but are encountering resistance. At least two dozen of the comments by the survey respondents mentioned push-back on requests for flexible arrangements.
“I cannot work alternate hours or work from home ever,” wrote one respondent.
“I have had issues with my former employer recognizing and offering an alternate work schedule so I could better manage my work/life balance after having two young children,” wrote another.
In recent years, the demands of the legal profession have intensified. One of the biggest obstacles for a young woman lawyer — and young lawyers generally — is the expectation of being accessible and on call 24/7, say survey respondents.
While expectations are the same for male lawyers, female associates typically tolerate the increased demands on their time and attention for less pay, less respect and fewer opportunities to advance, the survey found.
Freelance journalist Ann Friedman describes that concern as the universal reason women leave their organizations. “They are all in … the problem is that, all too often, their efforts are not recognized, cultivated, and compensated in the way their male colleagues’ are.” A 2016 global study of women in their 30s by the International Consortium for Executive Development Research found that the primary reason women leave their organizations is pay — not work/life balance issues, as most male leaders assume. To Friedman, the solution is obvious. “If you’re an employer, you can retain your female employees longer and keep them happier by paying them more.”
The Florida Bar survey reflected that same sentiment. One respondent noted: “I get paid less and was denied a bonus when I know my male counterpart, who has similar background and experience as me, received one.” The numbers do show a discrepancy. Median pay for full-time female lawyers is 77.4 percent of the pay earned by their male counterparts, according to newly released data by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Yet research shows that leaving it up to the women lawyers to negotiate for better pay is unlikely to make a big difference. Women are often labeled as greedy and aggressive and not team-driven when asking for a well-deserved raise and bonus, according to Hannah Riley Bowles, a senior lecturer in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, in the Harvard Business Review. Men who ask are viewed as good negotiators and hard workers worthy of consideration for an increase, she says.
Florida Bar President Ray Abadin, a Miami trial lawyer, says that he was shocked and dismayed by the Young Lawyers’ survey findings. “I thought we had made much more progress on gender issues,” he says. “I hope we can evolve to a place where everyone understands the concept of fairness — equal work for equal pay.”
Abadin says he has been traveling around the state encouraging male lawyers to make changes for the good of their wives and daughters, and for firms to get past the institutional inertia that prevents them from being flexible with scheduling and work-from-home arrangements. “I think we need to have the hard conversations again in the context of 2016.”
Cindy Krischer Goodman writes regularly on work life issues. Connect with her at email@example.com, @balancegal or visit worklifebalancingact.com.
Discussion: Florida Bar Ray Abadin will discussing the results of survey results on April 6th at a 12 p.m. at a Women In the Legal Profession luncheon at the Epic Hotel. Information: www.mdfawl.org.
Work/Life Balancing Act blog: Two Miami female law associates share 5 tips for Overcoming Work/Life Obstacles, at miamiherald.com.