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Will Female Lawyers Ever Be Preferred by Male Clients or Legal Staff?


Deciding whether to have a female lawyer or a male lawyer represent them in court is a preference that comes down to comfort. Since a client should choose a lawyer they are comfortable with, a study performed by Acritas, owned by Thomson Reuters, found that only 17% of male clients choose female partners to handle their legal matters. In 2009, a small survey of 142 legal secretaries was conducted by a Chicago-Kent law professor. None of the legal secretaries expressed a preference for working with a female partner. Will female lawyers or female partners ever be the preference by male clients or legal staff?

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Will Female Lawyers Ever Be Preferred by Male Clients or Legal Staff?

The legal industry remains incredibly conservative. Despite Lucy Terry Prince, Myra Bradwell, Clara Foltz, Lutie Lytle, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Sandra Day O’Connor, Elena Kagan, Hillary Clinton, and last, but certainly not least, the inimitable Michelle Obama, female lawyers and female law partners are not equal to their male counterparts in pay or respect. Yet, the legal industry isn’t the only industry where it happens. And statistics support this.

A Harris Poll showed that when people say they want women in powerful positions, they still prefer men and women to take more traditional roles. In a survey of more than 2,000 adults, 71% said they were comfortable with interacting with female lawyers, but if they were forced to choose, 53% would choose a male lawyer.
  • 59% preferred a male president
  • 72% preferred a male engineer
  • 56% preferred a male Fortune 500 senior executive
  • 93% preferred a female nurse
  • 87% preferred a female teacher
However, one fact that you may not expect is that older respondents were more comfortable with females in traditionally male roles. What's with the unexpected change? Likely because the older respondents have real-life experience with women in traditionally male roles.

However, that does not necessarily mean that female lawyers and female partners are equal. They definitely aren't with only around 19% of male clients choosing to be represented by female partners.

How Clients Would Benefit from Gender Diversity

As the only saying goes: Two heads are better than one. While clients should undoubtedly choose a lawyer they feel comfortable talking with, as this will help ensure that they are entirely forthcoming with their lawyer, gender diversity is a tool that can help not just their case but also the firm. The Acritas study compared single-gender teams and mixed-gender (gender diverse) teams using specific key performance indicators (KPIs). The gender-diverse teams were found to outperform the single-gender teams significantly. Where female lawyers or partners took the lead, the teams performed equally well compared to male-led teams. Clients determined on their own that they felt they received superior performance when working with gender diverse teams.

In certain areas of law, such as family law, a female lawyer or partner can be very beneficial for male clients. For example, in a divorce or child custody or child support matter, it can appear harsh to those in the gallery, family, or even friends to have a male lawyer or partner go on the attack on the former spouse or co-parent, even though that’s what they are hired to do. It can make the male client seem like a bully. To have a female lawyer or partner ask the same line of questions can be more effective for the client. A female lawyer or partner may have additional insight for the male client as well.

Yet the Legal Industry Continues to Be the Industry of the Good Ole’ Boys

When female lawyers and partners have so much to offer to male clients, why do male clients continue to prefer male lawyers and male partners? The answer is simply because the industry continues to be the good ole’ boys’ network. It isn’t that women are bad at business development. Keep in mind that the Harris Poll showed that older respondents with real-life experience prefer women in traditionally held male positions.

While the female equity partner rate may be at an all-time high of 19%, no one is really impressed with it. Less than one percent of women are considered a Top 10 earner at most BigLaw establishments. And, again, we cannot just chalk this up to women being bad at business development. If they were bad at business development, we wouldn’t see women starting their own successful law firms. And we know that they do. On average, they earn up to 30% more than they did as partners (and they deal with far less sexism).

Men tend to take their legal problems to male lawyers and male partners because they:
  • Go to church with them
  • Attend the same country club
  • Went to high school together
  • Went to college together
  • Went to law school together
And any other reason under the sun. Just like the Harris Poll, they are conditioned to think of it in terms of a traditional male job (and they are going to be robbed of the benefits of gender diversity when it comes to their claim).

Legal Staff Appear Unhappy Working with Female Partners

Unfortunately, it's not just male clients who prefer working with male lawyers and partners. A small study conducted by a Chicago-Kent law professor found that out of 142 legal secretaries, none of them wanted to work with female partners.
  • 35% preferred to work for male partners
  • 15% preferred to work for male lawyers
  • 3% preferred to work for female lawyers
  • 47% had no opinion
The majority of respondents were women with considerable experience as legal secretaries who came from law firms with more than 100 lawyers. The consensus is that legal secretaries found female partners passive-aggressive and harder on their legal staff than male partners. Female partners are more emotional, put down their legal staff, are immature and unable to handle the stress that comes with working as a partner, and have an “air” about them.

When considered alongside the information that female partners are often paid less, not chosen to lead by male clients, and often exposed to overt sexism, it may be fair to assert that female partners may be attempting to overcompensate with their legal staff. Or that the stress of being a partner is difficult to cope with, as we've discussed in several of the articles here on LawCrossing.

Partnership is a long journey and certainly isn’t an easy one. However, it’s imperative to have a good working relationship with support staff. Both male and female partners and lawyers should ensure that work stress does not impact how they treat their staff. Legal staff should always be treated with respect.

Tips to Improve Working Relationships with Legal Staff

Being a female partner or lawyer doesn't automatically mean that there's a bad working relationship with legal staff. Keep in mind that almost half of the respondents expressed no preference. So, it’s likely that a fair number of legal staff enjoy working with female partners. The survey sample was also quite small. Again, though, a good working relationship with legal staff is crucial. So, tips to keep a good working relationship with legal staff is always prudent.
  • Establish good communication. Don’t talk at your legal secretary, legal assistant, or paralegal. Talk to them. You should be a team. Being a team is the best way to ensure not just that expectations get met, but that you're both able to work together (and maybe even enjoy it). Trust is built, and if your legal staff is happy, they’re less likely to quit.
  • Make your expectations known, but don’t micromanage. While having clear expectations and being available to answer questions (without belittling or being passive-aggressive or aggressive) is essential, it's also important not to micromanage your staff. 
  • Keep criticism private, and praise in public. No one is perfect. No one likes being criticized in public. Keep criticism private (and keep it at the right level and done constructively). Praise should be public. It's a simple concept that often goes overlooked, but it will pay dividends in improving your working relationship.
  • Stick to your schedule and let your legal assistant know right away if you can’t. If your legal assistant is in charge of your scheduling, don't make them look inept by not keeping your schedule. Yes, things happen. Yes, sometimes, you change your schedule or schedule your own affairs. If something comes up or if you change something, make sure that you let your legal assistant know right away. You certainly wouldn't like it if things changed and no one told you (particularly if it affected your job and you were left holding the proverbial bag). Be a person of your word, and don't make a fool out of your assistant. It's not what nice people do.
Just be nice. It shouldn't need to be said, but just be nice. Keep in mind that you'd have to do a lot of things on your own without your legal staff. Or train another person… and training another person takes a lot of time. Your legal assistant is someone with a life of their own, just like you. You’re no different from them; in fact, you're dependent on them in many ways. So, be nice.

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