By Lauren Howard • October 26, 2008•Firms and the Private Sector
I enjoyed a coversation recently with a male friend who inquired about my looming future career as a "big firm lawyer." I expressed some rational doubt and hesitancy about my future - anyone who thinks that gearing up from the luxurious gliding pace of 3L year to the 80 hour week grind is going to be easy is living in a wonderful dream world. My friend mentioned that "It must be hard for women to assimilate to that world." Intrigued, and perhaps preemptively annoyed, I questioned him further and he responded that while men are naturally drawn to rank, order, the militancy of a hierarchy, women are more interested in "networks" and have more success within employment structures that allow for a more diverse array of relationships. In other words, he felt the very structure of big law firms was "masculine," and benefited men while it challenged women.
While I appreciate his point that competitive men weaned on war games as children may be more drawn to a rigid pecking order, I am not so convinced that thie law firm setting is naturally anti-female. For example, the "lockstep" law firm structure ensures that women will have opportunities for advancement as associates (if, admittedly not as partners) and lessens the risk that they will be (inadvertently or otherwise) penalized for their gender. In addition, when women first began climbing the law firm ladder the predictable and uniform pace of advancement may have prevented "the old boys club" mentality from causing unfair discrepancies.
Conversely, the rigid structure does seem generate certain disadvantages for women. First, many women seek to undertake more substantial child-rearing duties than their male counterparts, and perhaps a more meritocratic employment structure would allow women to pace their growth to maximize performance during times of low commitment and then take a step back when non-work commitments arise. This sort of ladder-climbing is more difficult to do within a rigidly timelined employment structure. Second, many women may otherwise be able to incresae their opportunities through their social relationships and networks, and thereby gain more diversity of experience. The rigid employment structure may reduce opportunities for relationship-based growth.
Of all the concerns haunting me as I stare down the obstacle-ridden first-year as an attorney, the restraints of a rigid hierarchy are only a middling threat. If anything, it feels like an insurance policy - if it turns out I am a terrible attorney, the lockstep system provides certain protections. But, in the interest of "assimilation" as my friend termed it, perhaps I should begin my plan for managing the file and rank system before I find myself falling between the cracks. What is the best way to approach a workplace organized with military-precise seniority systems? Work diligently and never be seen as "above your rank"? Or always seem prepared and eager to take that next step?
I supposed I'll find out.