09 April 2012 at 11:53 BST

A pain in the head

There's a perception that the glass ceiling has been shattered by successful female lawyers. It's wrong, says Chrissie Lightfoot -- women are still smashing their heads and much vital progress needs to be made

Chrissie Lightfoot: too much leg stroking

‘Don’t mind me, I just like legs,’ crooned the male partner to the female trainee lawyer perched nervously on his office sofa. Placing a sweaty hand just above her silky knee, he provocatively slid his fingers down to her ankle and slowly back again. Stroking and caressing continually -- he then proceeded to take her through the finer details of boiler clauses and bespoke terms.
This is not an overwrought passage from a romance novel designed to get the heartbeats of middle-aged housewives racing. Or indeed a pastiche of America’s latest television craze, Mad Men. It is instead the kind of scene that is still regularly played out in the offices of business law firms -- along with a host of other ‘hushed up’ behaviour.

Cracks in the ceiling

Several years ago I conducted some research that resulted in a thesis entitled ‘Relative work, relative leisure; women entrepreneurs in the 1990s’. In it, I firmly concluded that there was no such thing as the glass ceiling. If women were prepared to work thrice as hard, make the right bold choices, bring about the necessary changes in behaviour and ultimately take control of their career journeys, then they could, quite simply, shatter the glass ceiling.
I was wrong.
My research was flawed. I’d failed to interview women in the legal profession. Also, at that time, I’d never worked in it myself, witnessed what actually goes on or met the hoards of highly talented ladies who suffer from sexual harassment, bullying, ‘professional prejudice’ and ‘baby prejudice’. Those who dare to complain endure the daily patronising, megalomaniac, egotistical old boys’ club mantra of ‘if you want to get on in this firm you’d better shut up and wise up’. 
In a legal world where clients and prospective clients are being entertained in lap dancing bars and schmoozed by high class escorts to ‘seal the deal’, it’s not uncommon for women lawyers attempting to scale the corporate ladder in London, New York, Sydney and elsewhere to be stone-walled and ostracised in conversations and meetings with male colleagues while they guffaw in their deliberations over which strip (or sex) club their clients would prefer.

Problems and solutions


But should this be the attitude and behaviour we’re proud of as a profession and business?  Do all male lawyers behave in this way? Unlikely. Do all female lawyers endure and/or tolerate this kind of behaviour by their male (or female) colleagues? Again, unlikely.
Yet, when I recently posed the question ‘does the glass ceiling exist in our beloved business of law?’ to many female lawyers, the overwhelming response was typified by one reaction. It came from a female city lawyer who has managed to claw her way to partnership in a global law firm, and who also witnesses the daily prejudice against her female assistants and associates. She admitted with a pained expression: ‘I didn’t think it existed...but it does.’
So is there a problem? Yes, definitely. Is there a solution? Yes, there’s always a solution if we -- men and women -- are prepared to put our egos, ignorance, arrogance and prejudice aside.
In an earlier article I shared the thoughts and predictions from leading futurologists that the world is moving towards a networked global society, typified by hyper-collaboration, return on involvement, an appreciation by clients of emotional intelligence, the importance of human brand, interaction before transaction and a desire for legal advice based on emotion. Arguably, these are just the type of skills in which women lawyers, women partners and women in boardrooms naturally excel; for example, communication, conversation, engagement, involvement, emotion, empathy and relationship marketing (networking).

Girl power

Female entrepreneurs -- buyers of legal services – currently account for approximately a third of all entrepreneurs worldwide, and the US Census Bureau predicts that by the year 2025, the share of women entrepreneurship in that country will increase to more than 55 per cent. And the UK-based futurist, Rohit Talwar, predicted in a recent report that by the year 2020, 20 per cent of the US working-age population will be self-employed entrepreneurs.
Where America leads in business, the rest of the world eventually catches up. Therefore, taking account of trends regarding the number of female entrepreneurs worldwide, we’d be wise to temper our attitudes, behaviour and prejudice towards women lawyers. We’d be foolish to ignore the fact that we need talented women in the business of law.
Why? In a networked society and collaborative world where trust, relationships, emotion and humanness are currency, where the number of present and future women clients is set to increase, where clients do business with those they know, like, trust, understand and share common interests; where clients buy legal advice on the basis of emotion, and justify that purchase with logic, it’s a no-brainer.
Fortunately, in adversity there is always opportunity.

Chrissie Lightfoot is the chief executive of legal consultancy EntrepreneurLawyer and author of the book ‘The Naked Lawyer: RIP to XXX – How to Market, Brand and Sell YOU!’
 
   
 
 
 

Also read...

Australian law firm mergers set for take-off in 2018

Australia could be in for a bout of merger mania this year as two law firms announce plans and another is said to be ready to propose.