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  • Writer's pictureJaap Bosman

Parole, parole*

We live in troubling times. The pandemic is not over yet, Russia has launched the largest and most brutal military invasion in modern history, energy prices have sky rocketed, inflation is rampant and serious food shortages have become a realistic scenario for large parts of the world. Amidst all this gloom, one could be forgiven not being aware that Tuesday 8 March was International Women Day.

On the occasion, The Economist’s glass-ceiling index was published. This is their annual measure of the role and influence of women in the workforce. Being a citizen of the Netherlands, I did not find the 2022 index uplifting. The country ranked 21 out of the 29 countries represented. This despite politicians and business leaders always having their mouth full of the importance of gender equality. Parole, parole, words, empty words…

Legal Industry rock bottom

Fortunately the index ranks countries, not companies or industries. If industries would be ranked, the legal industry would no doubt be close to the bottom. In Europe there are by now percentage wise probably more female bus drivers, than there are female equity partners in tier-1 law firms, despite law firms advocating equal partnership opportunities for women. Parole, parole, words, empty words…

Me, being a man, I probably should not enter into the social, political or ideological dimensions of this discussion. This article will focus on the business aspect: law firms, in order to excel, need to retain the best possible talent. Statistically, 50% of that talent has to be female. Any law firm that does not have close to 50% female equity partners, is missing out on talent opportunities.

Let’s examine where the alleged efforts to appoint more female equity partners do derail.

Different rewards

Recently I had a conversation with a highly successful litigation partner. While he had always had a majority of women in his team, he had never made a female partner. He praised the female lawyers in his team for their diligence and reliability. He told me how, on many occasions a female associate had spotted an omission or mistake that he himself had missed.

To him, in his mind, the female lawyers in his team were crucial. He could not imagine having to run his practice without them. And yet, during the two decades that he was now a partner, he had never promoted a woman, but he did promote two men. Women were just Santa’s little helpers. Indispensable, but never eligible to be the next Santa.

The issue here is that male and female lawyers are each rewarded for entirely different skills. Male lawyers are encouraged to be bold, outgoing, outspoken and take risk. They are forgiven for sometimes being a bit sloppy. Female lawyers on the other hand, are rewarded for being diligent and precise. Women that are brash or outspoken are disliked. Women are supposed to act nice, be social and serve. This sets women up for failure if it comes to future partnership. During their time as an associate, they are rewarded for exactly the opposite of what makes a good partner. Men on the other hand are rewarded on future partner characteristics and are forgiven if they are not a model-associate.

Perhaps female partners are women’s worst enemies?

During the run-off to the last US elections, I watched a TV program that asked ordinary Americans for which of the two candidates they intended to vote. Surprisingly immigrants who made it to middle-class were overwhelmingly supporting Trump, who is openly anti-immigrant. Apparently if you have had to struggle and fight to make it yourself, you less inclined to support others getting the same for free.

In that same spirit of thinking, female partners do typically not promote new female partners. Female partners tend to raise the bar for women to become partner even higher than their male fellows.

Maybe this is in part because they don’t like competition? Being one of the few female partners makes you a bit special. Once the number of female partners would start to grow, that special status would fade.

Women prefer to stay at home

One of our friends, let’s call him Anthony, is a partner at one of the elite law firms in his country. He is a modern man and certainly not sexist or anti-feminist. When it comes to women becoming partner in his firm, he feels a bit sad and disillusioned. He tells me he has had so many conversations with talented female associates, trying to convince them to apply for partnership. The women he talks to, in his mind, all indicate that they rather be at home with the children, than trying to become a partner at the firm.

The problem here is that Anthony, hears what he expects to hear. Perhaps the women he speaks with even tell him what they feel it is what they are supposed to say, think and do anyway. All this of course makes no sense.

Raising and looking after children is not the exclusive domain or responsibility of women. In any divorce, men want equal rights to the children. So if men expect equal rights when the relationship ends, why wouldn’t they have equal rights and responsibilities while it lasts?

Often the partners in a law firm portrait partnership as an all-consuming occupation. Partnership implies the will to sacrifice everything private: it will ruin your relationships, you will have to return early or depart late for holidays, and you will not see your children grow up. Painting such caricature will scare away anyone in his/her right mind, so don’t blame it on the women. We need to drastically adjust the image of partnership. Being a partner must become an appealing proposition, not an invitation to hell.

Stop talking, take action

When I saw the poor position of Netherlands in The Economist’s index, I wrote in an article that the ambition should be, to next year at least have a score above the OECD average. Words alone will do nothing the help achieve this. Only action counts.

Law firms, I would encourage to set hard targets for increasing the percentage of female equity partners. You may have noticed that I consequently mention ‘equity’ when it comes to partnership. I am of course aware that it is in fashion to appoint women as salaried partners. While this beefs up the numbers towards the outside world, it is ultimately even more insulting than not appointing female partners at all.

It is time to start acting and stop talking. Law firms cannot afford to lose 50% of the best talent.

Read more in an outstanding article by Lisa Hakanson: Diversity, a hard nut to crack

*"Parole parole" (transl. "Words words") is a duet song originally performed by Italian singer Mina -pictured above- and actor Alberto Lupo. It was released in April 1972. In 1973, Dalida and Alain Delon recorded the song in French as "Paroles, paroles", that became an international hit and a classic in France. My father used to love this song, and I remember it as a child.


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