Thirty-five year old sprinter Allyson Felix is the most decorated Olympian in track and field history. Yet even Felix couldn’t outrun discrimination by her former sponsor Nike — which pressured her to return to form as soon as possible after a high-risk pregnancy and birth while slashing her pay to 70 percent of what she’d earned previously.
Needless to say, Felix criticized Nike publicly and cut ties with the company. But then Felix, being the superstar she is, went the extra lap: along with her brother, Felix launched her own sneaker company, Saysh which created a sneaker designed by women for the unique anatomy of a woman’s foot.
Just as Felix couldn’t win with Nike, many superstar women attorneys likewise losing the battle for parity at biglaw. We hear this message over and over and over again in every report that the ABA releases on women in the profession. Yet, ABA’s answer is always the same: write another study; examine ways to make Biglaw change to accommodate women. Haven’t we been there, done that a thousand times?
But here’s the thing — changing biglaw just isn’t a big enough vision.
Felix could have stayed and changed Nike. In fact, she did: following Nike’s fallout with Felix, the company expanded its payment protections for pregnant women and new mothers. But look at how much more Felix accomplished by leaving. There’s now a company focusing entirely on footwear for female athletes and shaping the narrative of equality through athletics and aesthetics. A company that unlike Nike, is owned by a black woman and will serve women first while still dominating.
When we focus myopically on reforming biglaw, we miss out. By encouraging and supporting and celebrating women who leave to start their own venture, we introduce new business models and ways of practice and innovation into the universe that didn’t exist before. That’s the way for women lawyers to lead and win.
Just like Allyson Felix.