Susan Smith Blakely

The Big Picture on Gender Bias and Women Lawyers

The number of gender bias law suits and gender bias complaints against law firms is on the rise, based on this article in AmLaw Daily, which quotes David Sanford, the chairman of Sanford Heisler Sharp, who represents most of the plaintiffs in the current lawsuits.  Sanford also has represented countless other women lawyers in complaints against their law firms based on unequal opportunities and unequal pay as compared to their male colleagues.

Most of you probably have read at least something about the current law suits, but there is more that may come as a surprise to you.   What you may not know is that the higher you climb in a law firm, the more likely you are to encounter gender bias.  Just because you are experiencing what you believe is equal treatment as an associate or a non-equity partner, you should not be lulled into a state of complacency.   Here is how it is described in the article:

"When it comes to large law firms, gender disparities tend to heighten as lawyers move up the ranks. Although [Sanford] has seen instances of woman associates receiving lower bonuses than men, the lockstep approach that most firms use to set the base salaries for associates can put a check on differences in pay at that level.  But higher up the chain, employment conditions for lawyers often depend heavily on decisions made at the top of the firm. Firm leaders, for instance, decide whether to make a particular lawyer a partner. And they have control over compensation, deciding how bonuses are administered or which partners receive credit for originating a matter."

"We see the differences arise at those key moments of discretionary authority," Sanford said. "And that discretion is typically administered by males."

This is a major focus of Best Friends at the Bar, and I address these issues in my programs on effective leadership for women lawyers at law firms, law schools and law organizations throughout the country.  Appropriate use of the "discretionary authority" that Sanford talks about is a key component of effective leadership in law firms.  My writing and speaking on these subjects, including in my book, Best Friends at the Bar:  Top-Down Leadership for Women Lawyers (Wolters Kluwer Law & Business/Aspen Publishers, 2015), is full of examples of leadership behavior that screams implicit gender bias --- and often comes as a big surprise to the male lawyers in the audiences.  In fact, after they acknowledge how "clueless" they are about the impact of this negative behavior, those lawyers begin to ask for more advice on how to turn negative behavior into positive leadership for the benefit of women lawyers and the firm.

That is when the real progress happens, and I love being a part of the transformation.

Does your law firm need this kind of candid discussion about gender bias?  Or do the leaders in your law firm want to remain clueless and vulnerable?  Do they want to continue to lose talent due to disregard and the convenience of complacency or do they want to take responsibility and become the effective leaders they can be?

Contact me to get your firm on the road to recovery from gender bias.  You will be glad you did.

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 Corporate Counsel Magazine, the LA Daily Journal, National Jurist, Washington Examiner Newspaper, Forbes Woman, DC Spotlight, Lawyerist. Com, Daily Muse and Huffington Post Business.  Ms. Blakely also is a frequent guest speaker and panelist at conferences on women's issues in business 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, and she is the recipient of a Lawyer Monthly Women in Law Award 2016.

 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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