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Solo & Small Law Firms

The Legal Profession’s Invisible Women

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Recently while online, I came across this post by a female law firm partner with 25 years of experience under her belt. She writes:

This past year, I settled two enormous cases in federal district court, reeling in two success bonuses above and beyond my hourly rates, as a result of an arrangement that I negotiated. I won a precedent-setting case in federal circuit court that preserved our clients’ three jury verdicts from the previous year. And after resolving one small matter due to another firm’s conflict, the client decided to transfer all of its cases over to me, which lead to five additional, lucrative matters. Yet no matter what I do, my colleagues deprecate my accomplishments as insignificant when compared to the routine work that one of the firm’s partners churned out for a legacy client just because that client is a century-old financial institution whereas my clients are industry newcomers and disrupters. And while other partners’ victories are heartily celebrated and lauded with press releases, my work is ignored. At this stage of my career, I just can’t tolerate this treatment any more. I am tired of being an invisible lawyer because I’m a woman.

If you work at big law, or recently read former Judge Scheindlin’s New York Times op-ed piece, Female Lawyers Can Talk Too , this experience sounds familiar.

So perhaps it will surprise you to learn that the woman who penned the above quote wasn’t a female partner at a big law firm.  It was me – a woman lawyer with my own small practice here in Washington D.C.

The content of my quote is accurate. Technically, I am a partner in that I have an ownership interest in my law firm – in my case, 100%.  I did settle two big matters earlier this year for six and seven figures respectfully against companies represented by big law and did secure generous bonus payments. I did win a significant matter at the Fourth Circuit  against an AmLaw 100 firm that preserved three six-figure verdicts that my clients secured against the same firm, and a client did send all of its work to me after its original firm was conflicted out because the client liked how I was willing to press the envelope on disputed legal issues instead of recommending that they roll over and settle.  On top of that, I run an award-winning blog and I’m an involuntarily single parent (In fact, I did that eight day federal court trial where the verdict was just affirmed five weeks after my husband died.). But none of my accomplishments amount to a hill of beans when it comes to talking about women in the legal profession for one simple reason: I don’t work at big law  and I don’t count.

In short, the women fighting for equality at big law treat me exactly the way that they claim big law treats them – with condescension (“oh, it’s nice that you have your own little practice, but it’s not the same,” or casual oversight (yes, let’s start Diversity Labs  to promote equality in the profession, and not invite a single solo to partake). Meanwhile, within legal circles, there’s no discussion of a problem highlighted in a recent article in the Atlantic  that discusses women bullying each other in the workplace – including at big law (incidentally, I wasn’t treated very well as a subordinate to a woman boss at a government agency, my first job out of law school). Maybe it’s not men who are keeping women down, but women themselves.

On the other hand, when a man – in this instance, Scott Greenfield – sensibly suggests that women start their own firms as a solution to big law’s silencing of women, he’s labelled as a sexist. Why? Because his PC critics  assume that any firm that a woman might start wouldn’t be on par with Skadden or Cravath or another big law name?  Who’s the sexist now?

Look, I don’t doubt that there’s still sexism in the legal profession, just as there is in every other field. But until women recognize that they share the blame, or through their own actions, perpetuate the same discriminatory treatment that they protest, we won’t see changes any time soon.  Equality begins at home and that means treating all women in the legal profession with dignity and respect — not just those who work at biglaw.   Because like them, I’m tired of being invisible.

 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

  • Exactly.

  • Sandra Woessner

    I think solos and women in big law approach the business world differently. I think solos are smarter. We figured out from day one the game was rigged and chose not to play. I spent my time building up my own practice and using the profits to buy real estate. Now I can work part time and make a decent living.

    I don’t have a lot of sympathy for women who choose to join a firm and then complain that no one is giving them a piece of the pie. The stats on women in leadership roles and partnerships have barely moved over the years despite all the diversity programs, lawsuits and hand wringing. Did these women think they were so special and exceptional, so much more so than the women who came before them, that they were going to change all that? That’s just so damn arrogant, and, frankly, not all that smart. As a middle aged cranky lady, I no longer care whether these same women respect me or not. And I am not going to waste my time trying to earn it.

    But other women business owners? That’s a different story. I have an office building with 11 offices. Six of the offices house women owned businesses. And three of them are owned by women much younger than me. At the end of the day, that is what makes me happy.

  • Paul Spitz

    Funny, I was thinking as I started to read that the person quoted needed to leave wherever she worked and start her own firm! Kudos for the twist. I think that part of the problem solos have is that they don’t think of themselves as business owners. A successful solo or head of a small firm (under 5 lawyers) should put himself or herself on a status par with the CEO of any other business in town, because in additional to practicing law, you are running a business. It’s an attitudinal issue.

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