The Double Glass Ceiling: A barrier to female and minority retention

One reason for the inability of law firms to keep their female and minority lawyers may come down to two words: business development.  Or more accurately, business generation and the lack thereof.  I met a female in house counsel at a conference last fall.  She had gone in house after 8 years in a law firm.  I asked her what made her go in house and her answer was that she had been practicing in a very niche practice at her firm that wasn’t easy for her to develop her own business.  I asked other female in house counsel at the conference and the answers were somewhat similar.  The inability to develop a true book of business was one factor, sometimes of many, that they named.  They had climbed as far in the their firms as they could go.  Equity partnership without a book of business was either not possible or unlikely.  Add to that the billable hour pressures, and for some, the pressure of having young children, and the reasons for staying didn’t outweigh their reasons for leaving.  And it makes a lot of sense.  The ability to generate business at some level is an important.  But the ability to do so has certain barriers as a female or minority lawyer.  

As a very young lawyer I never considered the difficulties I would have in business development.  I never considered how hard it would be for me, a female Asian lawyer, to network and interact with decision makers at large companies.   The decision makers are more often than not male.  They are often white and over 50 years of age.  This divide makes relationship building difficult.  There was recently a study published that confirmed that although mixed gender counsel teams perform better and deliver better results, companies still often choose male outside counsel.  And part of the reason is unsurprising because networking and business development is all about building relationships. Those relationships often start off in the form of a casual acquaintance and turn into a friendship.  It’s those connections that engender trust.  So when the majority of the decision makers at big companies are male, they are going to look in their own circle of friends and acquaintances to aid them in their hiring decisions.  They will seek referrals from their friends, who are mostly male.  The fact that a larger percentage of the people they have connected with is male is not unusual or necessarily sexist.  A larger percentage of the people I connect with are females and minorities.  

The problem, however, is the feeling that there is a double glass ceiling or two boy's clubs to contend with.  Shattering the glass ceiling in your firm often requires shattering the glass ceiling in the realm of business development first. And if the clientele you’re faced with is much older and/or mostly male it will naturally take longer to shatter both ceilings.  While some may be willing to wait it out, waiting to be older themselves and waiting for their mostly female connections to rise to the top, a large percentage are not willing to wait.  Their law firm careers feel stagnant right around the same time they have greater family pressures.  This often coincides around the time they have sufficient experience to obtain lucrative sounding in-house positions.  And so they make the switch – switching into an environment that doesn’t place an emphasis on business generation.  

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