In several recent At the Intersection posts, we commented on some important social research discussing men’s pervasive tendency to interrupt women in group meetings or settings where the power stakes were high (“manterruption”) and to appropriate women’s ideas as their own (“bropropriation”). We did not conduct this social research; we just reported on it. Yet these posts triggered a torrent of response, some of which was gratifying to us and some of which was pretty bewildering, given that it came from a group supposedly known for its commitment to rules of law and principles of fairness.
You Got That Right
First, we want to express our appreciation to the many lawyers – both female and male – who wrote to thank us for shining a light on a very common and significant problem that all too often gets swept under the rug. We heard numerous war stories and horror stories, examples of oppression and suppression that basically said, “yeah, the researchers are right on the money: women’s professional leverage, leadership and advancement really are obstructed by their inability to get fair and respectful air time.” We heard from women in both law firms and legal departments, as well as from women who had left the legal profession because of their inability to be heard and get traction among dominance-seeking male colleagues. One typical example:
I would like to send your article on “Are You a Manterrupter?” to the group of young women I mentor. And I’ve spent the last two days dealing with a man who keeps mansplaining to me. It’s exhausting.
One of the most poignant of these responses came not from a woman, but from a male Practice Group Leader in a 500+ lawyer firm (his comments have been slightly edited to preserve confidentiality):
My daughter, who is an associate in another firm, sent me the link to your posts and asked me to read them because she said they captured exactly what women – including her – commonly experienced at her firm. My reaction to the posts was, “Nah, this can’t be. I guess this is the new hot topic for feminists to spout off about.” However, I did start observing the gender interactions in my firm more carefully. At the next few practice group meetings, I kept tabs on the interactions and interruptions on the edge of my legal pad. The results of my ad hoc research were sobering, because they revealed levels of ‘manterruption’ and ‘bropropriation’ that were far worse than those the social service researchers noted in their interviews.
Stifle Yourself, Edith
By way of counterpoint, we also received responses awash in heated denial asserting, in effect, that we were slandering men, that either manterruption doesn’t happen, doesn’t happen much, or is simply a cost of doing business in a competitive, power-oriented professional environment (you know, the old “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen” argument). Should we have been surprised that articles about how often women are told to sit down and shut up were greeted with catcalls suggesting that the articles’ authors should sit down and shut up?
The “protesteth too much” tone of these responses suggests to us that they were probably written by inveterate manterrupters, rather than by lawyers with superior emotional intelligence, keen active listening skills, and the predilection to respect other people. In pleadings parlance, many of these responders issued a General Denial. We do not expect the resesarch or our comments to change their minds.
And Most Surprising of All…
We were prepared to be told that we might be wrong about the whole manterrupter controversy. We were not prepared to be attacked personally, to be told that we lacked the standing and objectivity to write about compromised communication between genders.
“You guys are supposed to be experts on Legal Project Management, not diversity and gender issues,” came one response. “What qualifies you to play social scientist? Why don’t you just stick to your own knitting?” Another wrote, “When did you become such feminists?”
Okay, Here’s the Connection
For those folks who feel we should silo our expertise and our opinions, let us connect the dots between effective communication needed in Legal Project Management (LPM) with the research. We are indeed staunch advocates of LPM as a discipline that sharpens legal service delivery and aligns law firm-client relationships to produce better collaboration and better results for all concerned. And, we have the opportunity to see many, many dysfunctional legal service delivery teams. The research of Professor Adams, Dr. Reeves and others piqued our interest because it spoke to one of the dysfunctions we have observed repeatedly: crippled communication. When you silence, interrupt or appropriate ideas from team members, you destroy team communication. When there is a disproportionate impact on female lawyers, it is not surprising to see their early departures from law firms.
As we so often assert, LPM is not simply a mechanistic system of procedures, methods and metrics. Done well, it also is a powerful communication engine, a common sense and intensely human approach to breaking down the walls that have traditionally put clients and their outside counsel at odds. In our minds, the word “relationship” is a functional description, not a touchy-feely talisman.
A fundamental axiom in LPM is “all of the players must be kept in the loop all of the time.” In other words, communication is crucial – candid, complete, and timely communication. And, oh, yeah: respectful and receptive, too. Any set of biases and attitudes that systematically stifles communication is profoundly counterproductive and erects a barrier to efficiency and productivity. It is vitally important to get sand out of the gears, wherever and however it may sift in; there is no benefit to driving efficiency into some areas of legal service delivery while tolerating inefficiency in others.
© 2015, Pam Woldow and Doug Richardson. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be copied or reproduced without prior written approval.