Global Elite Thought Leader Phyllis Korff discusses the developing role of women in the legal profession and the importance of senior female lawyers and clients in promoting gender diversity.
Fortunately, women continue to attend and graduate from law school in numbers that equal or exceed men. Unfortunately, many leave the profession before they become senior. This is due to many factors – only one of which is generally greater responsibilities for family members, young and old, than men. The women who remain tend to be very motivated and many of them rise to the top of the profession. In recent years, there has been a spotlight on the numbers, and large law firms especially have sought to promote qualified women. Still, only about 20 per cent of partners in large law firms are women. In the general counsel role, I believe the numbers are better and some say that the day is approaching when more than 50 per cent of general counsel will be women.
I don’t think there are specific challenges for women in the corporate finance space these days. Before there were computers and smartphones, when you were getting ready to file with the SEC, there were often days (and nights) spent at the printer working on the prospectus. This was really hard on people who had family responsibilities. Now a lot is done by computer, and you can be sitting at your office desk or your desk at home. It’s the same with due diligence. We used to have to travel to wherever the company was and sit in a room for days paging through documents. Today, a company will set up a secure virtual data room and you can examine documents in your office. Therefore, the amount of travel you have to do is cut down tremendously.
I think senior female lawyers are very important in promoting gender diversity in the profession. They do so in several ways. First by being a role model for younger lawyers: setting an example of how to be an excellent professional while continuing to do what is important to you, whether that is family, charitable work or a hobby. Second, by encouraging younger lawyers with potential to keep at it, even though there inevitably will be rough spots along the way. Third, by actively sponsoring these female lawyers, helping to get them over those hurdles by speaking up on their behalf.
Clients definitely influence gender diversity in private practice teams.
In fact, they are probably the largest factor in more women being promoted and included in important client matters. Many law firms did not take the need for more senior women in the profession seriously until clients demanded that women be included on teams that do their work. In the early days, many a story was recounted about how firms presented all-male teams to female general counsel and were told to go back to the office and reconfigure their team to look more like the people they would work with at the company.
I would hope that they loved the work they were doing and the people they were working with. Most lawyers work very hard and give up at least some part of their personal life. If they don’t love their work and their colleagues it becomes untenable. Of course, not everything will be great all the time but there has to be enough good to carry you over the bad patches. I personally love what I do. I find that I function best working within a team of people where everyone is smart and collaborative. I find a great deal of satisfaction in helping to solve a client problem or executing a transaction. I feel very lucky to be a lawyer.