Susan Smith Blakely

New Approaches to the Practice of Law

At about the same time that my recent article addressing needed changes in law firm cultures was being published by Corporate Counsel, the Women in Law Hackathon was being held at Stanford Law to address better compensation models for law firms.  Some of my friends were involved in the Hackathon, and, indeed, it is the brainchild of Caren Ulrich Stacey, the founder of the OnRamp Fellowship.  It seems that we all are wondering how to improve what have come to be toxic law firms cultures and create better-functioning and more diverse BigLaw atmospheres, beginning with new compensation models.  Read all about the innovative team competition at the Stanford Law Women in Law Hackathon  and the winning ideas at this link.   I was very pleased to see that the $10K winning prize was donated to Ms. JD, a group very near and dear to my heart.

One thing is for sure:  Change is necessary.  While the age-old "bill by the hour" is the standard fare, there will not be much room for schedule flexibility and other programs that promote diversity.  While the way that we evaluate the quality and success of law firms is PPP (profits per partner), there will be very little way to escape the increasing emphasis on profits and the lack of emphasis on quality of life and the high cost of chasing profits in our profession.  Here is how I explain it in my article in Corporate Counsel:

"The truth is that we don't do the profession of law very well in America. We ignore the lifestyles and well-being of practitioners. The law firm culture encourages workaholic behaviors that lead to stress-related illnesses and dependencies, as confirmed by research demonstrating that lawyers suffer from alcoholism and illegal drug use at rates far higher than non-lawyers. Divorce rates among lawyers, especially women, also appear to be higher than divorce rates among other professionals. Although lawyers represent some of the best-paid professionals, they are disproportionately unhappy and unhealthy. ("Why Are Lawyers So Unhappy,", December 5, 2011.) The result is a profession full of burnouts and resentment.

In an August 11, 2010 article on work-life balance in the ABA Journal online titled "Why Lawyers Should Work No More than 40 Hours a Week," Debra Cassens Weiss addressed these issues straight on. Her findings supported a need for a change in culture to benefit the professionals and the profession.

According to Cassens Weiss, lawyers can be more productive and creative if they put down their Blackberries and iPhones and concentrate on their personal lives at least part of the time. She cites expert findings that multitasking causes distraction, and that Blackberry/iPhone addicts lose focus and concentration.

Cassens Weiss gives us a lot to think about. To date, however, articles like hers and the underlying studies have not resulted in significant positive change in our profession. The alarmingly low retention and advancement rates for women lawyers are directly related to the traditional culture and practices of law firms, and those statistics have not changed in a decade. This is serious, and we need to do something about it. Finally.

We need to abandon our myriad excuses for why we cannot change this destructive pattern and practice. If we are going to improve the retention and advancement figures for women lawyers, we need to address the underlying problems affecting all lawyers, and hope that the process benefits them all. We need to start with a fundamental analysis of "happiness" and healthy living in both our professional and personal lives, and combine it with workplace practices and policies that we support and dignify. ...

The only thing standing between the current workaholic culture of law firms and this brighter future for lawyers is greed. It was the greed of Wall Street that brought on the Great Recession in 2008, and that experience should serve as a harbinger to law firm leadership. Greed and pursuit of high profits at the expense of the well-being of lawyers and their families will lead to no good.

Surely, we can do better than that."

Think about it.  Talk about it.  Make it part of the conversation that all lawyers should be having to safeguard their professional futures.  It is that important.

Susan Smith Blakely is the Founder of LegalPerspectives LLC and an award-winning, nationally-recognized author, speaker and consultant on issues related to young women lawyers, young women law students and young women interested in careers in the law.  She is author of Best Friends at the Bar:  What Women Need to Know about a Career in the Law (Wolters Kluwer/Aspen Publishers 2009), and Best Friends at the Bar:  The New Balance for Today's Woman Lawyer (Wolters Kluwer Law & Business 2012), which addresses the work-life struggle for women lawyers and includes twelve profiles of women who have successfully transitioned from one practice setting to another.  Her new book, Best Friends at the Bar:  Top-Down Leadership for Women Lawyers, will focus on the responsibilities of law firm leaders and will be released by Wolters Kluwer Law & Business in 2015.

 Ms. Blakely frequently speaks at colleges and universities, law schools, law firms and law organizations, and she has been featured in media including the LA Daily Journal, National Jurist, Coprorate Counsel, Washington Examiner Newspaper, Forbes Woman, DC Spotlight, Daily Muse and Huffington Post Business.  Ms. Blakely also is a frequent guest speaker and panelist at conferences on women's issues and the law profession, and she has been a featured speaker at the US Department of Justice, Civil Division.  She is the recipient of the Ms. JD 2015 "Sharing Her Passion Award" for her work on behalf of women in the law.

 Ms. Blakely graduated from the University of Wisconsin with distinction and from Georgetown University Law Center where she was a teaching fellow. She is a member of the CoachSource global network of leadership coaches and a career coach for the Indiana University Marshall Goldsmith Leadership Development and Executive Coaching Academy.   For more information, please visit 


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