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Feminenglish Part III: Causes and Consequences

Posted in Law firm practices, Legal Project Management

present but not heardOur current series of posts about Feminenglish, that peculiar deferential language female lawyers and business women have learned to speak in meetings with men, and last year’s related series about how men tend to grab the mike in meetings and “borrow” women’s ideas, are not intended as a feminist manifesto or a deep dive into diversity policy, gender politics or gender studies. Those worthy topics are the province of other authorities far more expert than we.

Our premise has been this: because of lawyers’ communication-related disconnects, discord, distrust and discouragement, particularly with respect to women, the legal profession is wasting a lot of horsepower. An unacceptable amount of horsepower.

What a Drag

In readers’ responses to these series, some have asked why we don’t confine our comments to our home field — the discipline of Legal Project Management (LPM) and its hallmark emphasis on systems, procedures and operations: good scoping, good planning, good budgeting, good monitoring and good post-project review. Here’s the answer:  as we continue to report on LPM trends and developments, we see all too clearly how often it is that human factors – lawyers’ behaviors, attitudes and particularly communication styles – produce the greatest “friction losses” in productivity, lawyer morale, and client satisfaction.

Pop leadership guru Jim Collins emphasizes that excellent organizational performance is a matter of “getting the right people on the bus.” But there’s a huge difference between having the right people on the bus and consigning half of them to the back of the bus.

A perfect example: a female partner in a major litigation firm tells us her firm has firmly embraced LPM, largely because their clients insisted they do so.  “Our processes and LPM technology are quite good,” she says. “But an interesting thing: when it comes to staffing our project teams, it’s always the men who do the frontline, client-facing lawyering, and it’s always female lawyers who are assigned the backroom LPM functions – the administrative functions, monitoring, budget tracking, the busy work.”

We’ve even given ourselves a name: ‘The LPM housewives.’ We do all the domestic work, but we seldom get the chance to show what we can do as lawyers  or interface with the client.”

So yes, we are on a crusade regarding a topic that falls squarely in our wheelhouse, that is, our longstanding war on waste – on anything that erodes productivity, service quality, and/or client satisfaction in the legal profession.  It has become accepted wisdom that the troubled state of inter-gender communications among lawyers creates huge inefficiencies, both in degraded collaboration between lawyers working together on project teams and in compromised communication between law firms and their clients.

When the Client is a She

On this latter point, the expanding ranks of female general counsel and senior in-house lawyers are particularly vocal in their criticism of firms that trot out diverse-appearing marketing teams, only to see the female and minority team members shushed in the marketing pitch and marginalized during subsequent legal service delivery.  Accordingly, in their RFPs and subsequent oversight of outside counsel, they take diversity particularly seriously – as a team effectiveness issue as much as a moral imperative.

But while diversity and gender-related communication asymmetry are certainly related, they are not identical: while the client can mandate the composition of marketing and service delivery teams, it is hard for them to create explicit performance standards for the quality of team communication. As we will discuss in our next post, maintaining effective communication must become a self-reinforcing and self-policing activity – for lawyers of both genders.

A Matter of Morale

In addition to the functional friction losses caused by current inter-gender communication patterns, we hear constantly about the enormous profession-wide decline in morale among female lawyers. In this regard, Feminenglish imposes huge social and emotional costs as well as operational inefficiencies, starving female lawyers of the human rewards of respect, acceptance, inclusion, and collegiality. Scores of women, in all legal settings and at all levels, tell us vivid war stories and horror stories about the humiliating frustrations of trying to navigate an uneven playing field, about unequal access to opportunity and the marketplace of ideas, about earning a place at the table only to be encouraged just to sit there and shut up.  They tell us about agonizing whether to give up on the profession altogether (and an increasing number are doing so).

This broad scale malaise and escalating exodus from the profession are of justifiable concern to managing partners and firm executive committees.  That’s because their band-aid attempts to address “failure to thrive” – women’s initiatives, female-to-female meet-ups, and diversity task forces – simply are not changing the climate.  The level of  female lawyers making equity partner has now remained stagnant for decades, the number of females ascending to law firm governance remains low, and the high attrition rate continues among both associates and partners.

Leverage at the Apex

Some august experts discount the importance of this loss of emotional sustenance by subscribing to what might be called the “Tough Darts Doctrine.” They suggest that because law and business have historically been male-dominated environments, a woman’s decision to abandon Venus to compete on Mars implies a willingness to weather an inevitable bunch of slings and arrows in order to succeed on men’s terms: “Hey, you say that in order to be a big dog equity partner you have to undergo a personality transplant?  Well, tough darts.”

For example, Dr. Karol Wasylyshyn, one of the nation’s foremost coaches for corporate C-suite executives and author of Destined to Lead, suggests that women who ascend to the highest rungs of corporate power learn to operate as if oblivious to the costs of asymmetrical communication; like the fierce Amazon warriors of legend, they suck it up, tough it out, and give as good as they get. In style, Dr. Wasylyshyn suggests, they are neither hyper-masculine nor hyper-feminine; they operate as if the world is gender-neutral, and their motivation is not diminished by suggestions that they are aggressive or “difficult.” To borrow a phrase from writer Simon Winchester, they become comfortable with “projecting hard power.”

Perhaps this damn-the-human-costs attitude produces individual rewards for apex performers atop the hierarchical corporate ladder, but we believe that overall it is dysfunctional in law firm settings supposedly defined by canons of partnership and professionalism, rather than raw power. We cannot expect all female lawyers to be apex Amazons willing to run roughshod over their colleagues – nor is it desirable to expect them to be. As a practical matter, and as we’ve suggested above, the costs of mediated communication get passed through to the client, and when this bias gets validated and reinforced, in the end, everybody – law firm, client, and individual lawyer – loses.

© 2016, Pam Woldow and Doug Richardson. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be copied or reproduced without prior written approval.