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Legal Culture Still White Male, Traditional, Observes Author of New Book

Is it indeed harder in heels? Ginger Rogers probably thought so, when she was dancing with Fred Astaire on the silver screen. But, figuratively speaking, the same could be said of women in many high-pressure jobs.

Jacquelyn H. Slotkin, professor of law at California Western School of Law in San Diego, has a new book out, “It’s Harder in Heels: Essays by Women Lawyers Achieving Work-Life Balance,” co-authored with her daughter, Los Angeles attorney Samantha Slotkin Goodman.

This collection of essays chronicles the joys and struggles of trying to find balance in a demanding profession, and covers everything from glass ceilings to the “maternal wall.”

Is the law profession open to change?

“The legal culture is still white male and traditional,” Slotkin observed. “In the big law firms, male partners play golf and schmooze the clients. A lot of them have been practicing for decades, and those kinds of people don’t change easily.”

In May, the international law firm of Heller Ehrman LLP completed a yearlong study called the “Opt-In Project,” tapping into a think tank of more than 900 representatives of various industries throughout the nation. The idea was to find ways to keep women, in particular, from “opting out” of their careers, and achieving a work-life balance.

For the legal profession, those ideas included doing away with the “up-or-out” system of the partnership track, in favor of a tiered approach, with more ways to measure success; creating an “on-ramp,” that keeps valued departing employees connected to the firm; offering a variety of employment options, including flex and part time, without jeopardizing career paths; and rethinking the traditional concept of billable hours

“My daughter and I have been discussing this for years,” said Slotkin. “Billable hours are not the way to judge people’s performances or skills. There are so many ways of measuring skills besides billables.”

Daughter Samantha, who has two young children, has been practicing law at Los Angeles-based Bryan Cave LLP with a flexible schedule, but still is on a partnership track when she feels ready to pursue it.

A member of the real estate client service group, Goodman has racked up several honors, including being named among the “Southland’s Rising Young Stars Under 40,” by Real Estate Southern California, a trade organization. It’s just good business for law firms to accommodate enterprising young lawyers like her, said Slotkin.

“Law firms have to look at where people are in their lives, and they need to be flexible,” she said. “We don’t want to lose this person and their skills.”


Fear Of Change

But traditional law firms might be hesitant to depart from what they consider the tried and true, said Ellen Waldman, professor of law at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego.

“If they adopt some of these recommendations, they will be perceived as less attentive to client needs , the notion that law firms get ahead by being ever-responsible, ever-ready, no such thing as the end of the work week,” she said. “You need to be reached evenings, weekends. ‘We are here to serve you.’ I guess it justifies the high rates.”

But this reluctance to acknowledge that “there are limits on what might be expected of the soldiers in the trenches,” is misplaced in sunny San Diego, said Waldman.

“People come to San Diego because they want a nice quality of life,” she said. “In Washington and New York, people don’t say, ‘I came to the city to pursue my water skiing hobby,’ or ‘I came here because it’s really important to exercise outside year round.’ They go to New York because they want to be the best in publishing, or if they want to work in the State Department and go to Washington. San Diego’s character is more oriented toward the quality of life.”

That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of local firms that “give the appearance of being a 24/7 shop,” she said.

“As long as we have a billing structure per hour, versus results-achieved, quality and productivity, we will have a work/life problem,” said Waldman. “It’s a terrible structure. If you have an associate who does a brief in 20 hours, this associate generates less revenue for the firm than an associate who does the brief in 50 hours. But, that first brief might be a better product and gets the job done more efficiently and lets the lawyer pursue other aspects of his or her life.”


System Must Change

The system must change, said Waldman.

“It’s disastrous for really smart, well- educated, well-trained, capable women to have to choose between a satisfying career and home life,” she said. “It’s appalling. If that’s a choice women continue to face, the women’s movement has been a pretty big disappointment.”

The mother of a young child herself, Waldman shares these frustrations.

“I have a 7-year-old, and getting her out the door is very challenging, with lunches to be made, her knapsack ready, getting my suit on and getting any place ready to work productively by 9,” said Waldman. “I have the kind of job where it doesn’t matter. I don’t want any classes before 10. I have lots of control over my schedule.”

Lawyers in conventional practices want the same flexibility, said Waldman.

“Workers are saying, ‘We want to be able to control our schedule, we want to telecommute, we need to be able to have breakfast with our kids, and get home by 5 p.m.,'” she said. “‘We can’t be at the beck and call of a culture that expects a 24/7 command performance.'”

Both Slotkin and Waldman get regular feedback from their law students.

“Quality of life is a huge concern for today’s students,” said Waldman. “Law students go to law schools knowing that there are a lot of unhappy lawyers out there, and they resolve that it’s going to be different for them. They want a work life that allows them a satisfying home life as well. Do they have power and savvy to negotiate that? I don’t know. But it has to come from the top.”

Her solution?

“I think that it’s important that we become more creative about how we structure our work environment,” said Waldman. “Women are not going to stop having children or spending time with them. It’s an imperative of nature. If we want women to continue to enhance the workplace, we need to change the workplace.”

Slotkin considers the recommendations made in the “Opt In” report to be “fabulous,” and a “must read” for bar associations. She especially likes the concept of customizing careers and providing “on ramps” to keep departing lawyers connected to their former firms, and gives high marks to the idea of an on-site “concierge” helping out with daily errands.

“Men have had that for years,” she said. “They’re called wives and secretaries.”

But the recommendations presented go beyond gender, said Slotkin.

“It’s not just a women’s issue anymore,” she said. “It’s bigger than just women. The law practice has to change. This is an excellent project with excellent recommendations , even if only two or three were actually implemented.”

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