Amy Collignon Gunn
Attorney, The Simon Law Firm, P.C.
One day at a time. It can be frustrating to go slowly. I have always been told that patience is a virtue, that it will be rewarded. Yet, for all the times being patient has seemingly paid off, I am willing to bet that waiting and being contented has resulted in multiple missed opportunities, continued status quo and unequal results.
When I pick a jury, I begin my voir dire by referencing Lady Justice - her eyes are blindfolded, the scales she holds are balanced and empty because, ladies and gentlemen, when you walk into this courtroom, in order for this process to be fair, no one side can begin this trial with the scales tipped for or against them. Allowing that to happen would be unjust, anathema to our civil justice system. We must start at equal.
Women lawyers, the scales have been tipped against us in the legal profession since the beginning. It is not fair, but it is true. Anyone who pays attention to statistics in this area knows that reality and while much progress has been made, inequality particularly in pay and in leadership positions at firms and in organizations glaringly remains.
I have struggled for years to understand why women, despite having made up half of law school classes for more than 25 years, are not half of the equity partners, judges and leaders of the bar by now. Women find it easier to advocate for others than for ourselves.
I read Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead2 a few years ago. Sheryl Sandberg explained in a chapter titled "Sit at the Table" that when women are asked to explain our success, we credit external factors and say things like we, "worked really hard" or "had help from others" or, and this is my personal favorite, "got lucky." Really, you won that trial or landed that client because you got lucky? This struck me like a ton of bricks. I did that all the time. Not to say being humble should be abandoned, but being able to accept that we are deserving of success and believing it was earned must be acknowledged. If you do not believe it, who will?3
Advocating for ourselves means not only standing up for yourself but also for those women around you in the courtroom, conference room and classroom. Slow evolution is endemic in the legal profession. We honor long-standing legal precedent, which by its very definition has been around for years and is hard to change. We rely on settled notions of law and practice in order to best advise our clients. We have long careers, meaning even though women have been entering the legal profession in strong, steady numbers for more than 25 years, we are still a minority of the population.4 We must do more than just be patient and hope that once enough times goes by, everything will even out. We do not have time for that. We must be willing to act. I have a few suggestions, some easy, some more challenging:
Get involved in an organization. Pick at least one, but do not stop at simple membership, be a leader. Yes, it takes time, yes, we know you are trying to balance a lot, but do it.
Be a mentor, or if you are just starting out in this business, find a mentor. Make that phone call, go to that lunch or walk up to that person at the networking event.
Sit at the table. Do not sit in the row of chairs circling the perimeter of the room.
Hire women. Pick women mediators. Choose women to be on the panel you are putting together and not just to discuss our issues. Say yes to be on the panel.
Find your voice. Better yet, use your voice. We are lawyers. We have been trained to do this. You know when you need to speak up, stop talking yourself out of it. When you feel your heart racing because you disagree with what is being said, stand up and be heard. This is imperative.
Wake up. Look around. Believe in yourself. Do not wait for your case, your client, your raise or your appointment to the compensation committee to come to you. Go get it.
Do something that scares you. Ask for a raise, take the lead in the client meeting or expert deposition, insist on arguing the motion that you wrote.
Be the first. Really, not too surprisingly, there are many firsts for women in this profession yet to take place. Find out what that is in your world and make it happen.
We can work one day at a time for positive change, we can strive one day at a time for better opportunities, we can argue one day at a time for rightful recognition, but we must do these things every day, tirelessly, fearlessly, confidently and with the knowledge that while patience may be a virtue, inequality is the precedence and will remain that way if we let it.
- Typically, I see articles about the state of women lawyers going one of two ways, - "we've come a long way, baby" or something akin to the voyage of the Titanic: the experiment started out beautifully, but in the end, due to insurmountable problems, it sunk. You can decide which way this one goes.
- Sandberg, Sheryl. Lean in: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. Thank you to Bettina Strauss for sending this book to me.
- I have tried with varying success to teach myself simply to say "thank you" when given a compliment on my work or receiving a recognition.
- Women make up approximately 32.9% of the legal profession nationwide, according to Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population, Employed persons by detailed occupation, sex, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity, Bureau of Labor Statistics (Feb. 12, 2015), http://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat11.htm.