By Jennifer Guenther • June 29, 2010•Writers in Residence
How often have we each thought- “It’s not fair!” It is a phrase that my children utter to me several times a day. My seven year-old invokes it upon every “no” that she hears out of pure habit- sometimes even when the “No!” is not directed at her. My five year old has perfected the phrase, practicing it in the mirror so as to ensure that her pouty lip has the utmost effect while sobbing the words. Even my two year has mastered this phrase with such clarity and precision of speech that is sounds almost shocking coming from his little body in such a sweet baby voice.
I often catch myself wanting to say a variation of it after a particularly frustrating day or when mulling over the various aspects of life when it gets complicated—although I must admit that my version of “It’s not fair” is more likely to involve a four letter word of some sort if I were to actually say it out loud.
I think that most of us try to treat other people fairly in life. We pay our taxes, without too much grumbling, mainly because we know that everyone else has to as well. We stand in line at the DMV for the same reason, and strongly protest those who try to cut ahead. Kids have their own version of “no cutting”, recognizing that if you are first, then you are first—so long as it is not always the same person at the head of the line.
For those who know the system, there are ways to get to the head of the line while still falling within the boundaries of “fairness.” You can call your lunch order in ahead or make an appointment. And no one holds a grudge if you do so because anyone can pick up the phone ahead of time if they wish and do the same thing.
It is this desire to do the right thing that makes it so frustrating when some one else is given a boost to jump ahead—whether it is the cute girl in the skimpy dress who is allowed under the ropes into the nightclub, or the associate down the hall who is suddenly handed a large book of business on which you do a substantial amount of the work. It leaves a bitter taste and feelings that, without putting on the skimpy dress, you will never get in to the dance. It is a feeling of the loss of control over your own destiny—the same lack of control that causes a child to shout “It’s not fair!” when they are told no.
Such seeming unfairness can be particularly jarring when it crosses gender or ethnic lines. After all, aren’t we suppose to be living in a modern day society where everyone is treated equally and we are all given the same opportunities to get ahead? In reality, for the last ten years more women than men have been graduating from law school in each class, and yet they make up only 18% of partners and less than 12% of all equity partners in law firms. Minorities compose an even smaller percentage.
I argue, however, that this is not necessarily a matter of “fairness”—after all, we are no longer children with parents and teachers controlling our actions. There is no more principal’s office to which we can be sent should we decide to talk back.
The Webster-Merriam dictionary defines “fair” as:
“Marked by impartiality and honesty: free from self-interest, prejudice, or favoritism.”
In the world of the law firm, it is very difficult to argue that there is no “self-interest”. After all, compensation is often judged on how much work you bring in and whether or not you make partner is rarely based on impartiality and honesty alone. Therefore, how can “fairness” come into play?
Instead, it is a matter of striving for equitable treatment and having persistence in creating an even playing field with rules that apply to everyone—a game in which hard work and talent alone provides the means to get ahead.
In the meantime, however, I advocate that self-interest must be part of every associate and partner’s daily goals. Current statistics suggest that women comprise only 12% of equity partners in law firms. These are the women who have made it and who will someday move on or retire. Unless more women step up, that 12% statistic can only go down. If we really want to measure equality by percentage points, it is up to those in the rank and file, the associates and junior partners, to make the effort to move up, to seek higher status and the goals of partnership—despite the fact that “Its’ not fair!”
While it is frustrating to watch someone else be handed a stepladder to move up the ranks—whether they are deserving or not—such actions do not take away our ability to seek out our own book of business, our own level of expertise and recognition, to build our own set of stairs up past the glass ceiling and into the penthouse.
Unlike a firm client that is given to a particular attorney to handle, when you build your own book of business, you build loyalty and a sense of trust with that client. They know you and are coming to the firm because of your efforts. That is equity that is hard to overlook and gives you back the power over your own destiny.