Ladies, Take A Lesson From Solo If You Want Equality At Biglaw

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 10.33.27 AMOh, the irony that an operation called Diversity Lab  (along with Stanford Law and Bloomberg Law ) was the sponsor of the first ever Women in Law Hackathon. Diversity? Right. The Woman-in-Law Hackathon was anything but – unless you consider diversity to be a room filled with Ivy-educated, white people who each hail from a different country club. Ticking through the list of sponsors and participants of the Hackathon – designed to brainstorm ways to improve retention and advancement of women lawyers at biglaw – I saw biglaw attorneys, inhouse counsel at large corporations and a smattering of academics.  As usual, missing from this list, is none other than the profession’s silent majority: solo and small firm lawyers.

Which is too bad, because this insular group could have benefited from a solo’s ingenuity. Take a look at the winning ideas that these geniuses dreamed up to advance women at law firms. First place and a $10k prize went to the “SMART Platform” – that re-jigger the way lawyers are reviewed to more heavily weight the law firm housework” – like serving on committees and involvement in administration – that women tend to disproportionately handle. Is this for real? Isn’t the better solution to ENCOURAGE WOMEN AT BIGLAW TO REFUSE TO DO THE GRUNT WORK TO BEING WITH? Isn’t the SMART solution to hold a lottery and randomly assign yucky tasks – or use the tech resources going into developing an app to foist slave work off on women to instead, automate these tasks so that no one has to do them.

The Second Place prize would create a program to “second” a women partner and a women associate to one of the firm’s institutional clients. OK – but what if the client prefers to work with other attorneys? Again, instead of putting women at the mercy of someone else’s clients, why not encourage them to build their own independent relationships so that they’re not reliant on the senior male partner?

The only idea that caught my attention was the “Mansfield Rule” project, named after the first woman admitted to the bar in the United States. The project would ensure that Big Law is no longer a “Man’s Field” by adopting a version of the Rooney Rule in the NFL (which both Johnnie Cochran and Cyrus Mehri, one of my law school classmates had a hand in developing). Like the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview minorities for coaching and high level positions, the Manfield Rule would force law firms to interview women candidates for leadership roles. At least this idea gets points for clever branding, reliance on an already-proven system and a goal of helping women advance rather than making it more acceptable to keep them in their place by paying them more.

Even the cash prizes – $10,000 or less – weren’t particularly well spent – donated to think tanks or other organizations that purport to advance women in law but don’t do much more than put out a couple of papers every year restating the obvious. A better idea would have been to donate the 10k to one or two women to leave big law to start their own law firm, then check back in 5 years to see who’s advanced more – the woman on her own, or the one sweeping the floors at Big Law?

But back to my original point: how would women solos have improved this event? Oh, let me count the ways.  We could teach women what it takes to build business, that settling for second place is unacceptable, that you can and should chart your own course .

To me, excluding solo and small female firms from these hackathons and other debates over diversity in law is, quite frankly, as sexist as the hierarchies that these women purport to fight against. Just like everyone else in the profession, these women lawyers look down on female solos – either believing that solo practice is for losers or that women who  run firms and raise families all at once aren’t really committed to the law.  And honestly, maybe some even envy the women who had the guts to break away and take charge of their careers instead of being resigned to being happy little Aunt Toms, picking up the house work while the Man is out litigating.

Harsh words, yes. But what’s harsher is when women fighting for equality and advancement and leadership ignore or trivialize those of us who have actually done it.