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Volume XI, Number 259

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Legal Profession Gender Bias and Struggles with Work Life Balance Continue: Florida Bar Young Lawyers Division Recent Survey

The 2015 Young Lawyers Division Survey on Women in the Legal Profession, released in March of 2016,  found that 43% of the 400 respondents had experienced some sort of gender bias during their careers, and 42% reported difficulties balancing work/life responsibilities.  The survey link was sent randomly to more than 3,000 female members of the Florida Bar’s Young Lawyer Division, and over 400 attorneys responded filling over 90 pages of comments sharing sometimes shocking examples of discrimination the respondents had experienced.

Some Examples of Responses from the survey:

  • After making partner, I learned that male attorneys were paid more out of law school than female attorneys with the same qualifications.
  • A highly contentious work environment was created by multiple supervisors at a former place of employment.  At one point a fellow employee was told by her direct supervisor, in front of other peers….that she felt her child was more important than her job.
  • As to gender bias, it has often been assumed that I am a court reporter, and not an attorney, by opposing counsel.
  • I have left a firm where I was told by the managing partner that I did not have to worry about making money and moving ahead because I would get married one day and will not have to worry about living expenses.

The entire survey is available here.

Valerie Barnhart,  a partner at Partner at Kelly Kronenberg in Fort Lauderdale and Co-Chair of the Florida Bar’s Young Lawyers Division Women’s Committee helped with the commission of the survey.  According to Barnhart, “we wanted to take the temperature of where Florida young female lawyers were and their concerns.  That’s how the survey was born.”

The survey indicates significant issues with women in work/life balance, including the unfortunately familiar dichotomy between having a career and having a family, as well as other issues of discrimination.  Barnhart says, “Women who want to have children feel like they have to choose, or they are put in a position where they feel like they have to choose, and that's a big target for us.”  However, the responses went beyond issues of work/life balance.  That said, Barnhart did not see the results as a bombshell.  She said, “I wasn’t surprised at the result, I was surprised at how severe they were . . . it was worse than I thought it was going to be, but it wasn’t a shock. The issues young women lawyers are dealing with are not limited to opposing counsel, or their employers, or their court--kind of across the board.  It’s more evenly distributed than I would’ve imagined.”

Florida Bar President, Ray Abadin of Sedgwick, LLP, said he was “surprised” by the results.  He said, “It’s 2016, I didn’t personally think this was happening to this extent.  I was extremely surprised.”  Abadin finds the results problematic, and wants to work to fix this disparity and start a conversation on a state-level to address these issues head-on.  Abadin believes firmly that there is no room for these kinds of issues in law, saying, “We are professionals in a profession, there is no reason for gender, and commentary based on gender, in a professional relationship.”  Abadin will speak at a variety of events throughout April, talking to rooms filled with both men and women in order to start a dialogue on these issues and raise awareness, hoping to “tilt the paradigm.”  Barnhart says, “Start from the top down and that’s how we get lasting change.”  Also, she says, “You need men in the conversation. Have men be part of the conversation. If you don’t, you will never have a solution.”

Communication of Needs Concerning Work-Life Balance

Aside from top-down support, there are many ways to make women’s lives, especially in terms of work life balance, easier.  Suzanne Amaducci-Adams, partner at Miami-based Bilzin Sumberg and head of one of the largest real estate practice groups in Florida, has experience as a successful woman in the legal industry.  She says:

The key to really solving this problem is communication. People need to be able to communicate what their limitations are, what their desires and goals are, and people can’t make assumptions about what people want and don’t want based upon a particular circumstance.

Citing the example that is prevalent throughout the survey of the woman returning from maternity leave, Amaducci-Adams says a conversation at this juncture is crucial.  She says, “ ‘Ok, your life has changed.  Where do you see your career going, what do you want to do, and how can we make your life easier so you’re more successful at our firm? ‘ That’s the conversation that needs to be had, and both sides are afraid to have it.”   

Amaducci-Adams is clear to point out that there is no shame in asking for, and using, an accommodation, but that accommodation has to fit in with the needs of the firm and the requirements of the work.  Flexibility on both parts is necessary.  She points out that, “As an employer, you want to keep good employees.  They may need an accommodation, but if the accommodation is reasonable, and works within the overall system, then who cares?”

Women Attorneys Need to Build Their Networks and Book of Business

Beyond communication of expectations, for all attorneys, being able to build a network and develop business is crucial to success.  Barnhart says, “If you have your own book of business, you are controlling your own future.”  This may be especially true for women, who can benefit immensely from mentors and sponsors taking an interest in their careers. Amaducci-Adams describes a sponsor as “someone who will involve you in meetings and opportunities so you can meet other people and give you a chance to learn and shine.”  By making sure there is a seat at the table for a young female attorney, they are able to make the connections and show off their skills in places they might not otherwise have access. Barnhart points out, “It doesn’t have to be a female mentor, it can be a male mentor--you need the investment, and how they can help you along in your practice and with generating business.”  Amaducci- Adams asserts that “Having a good sponsor is a gamechanger,” and Barnhart agrees, saying “Business generation and networking and having that source of business is so crucial to whatever trajectory you want to go on.”

While the survey results are troubling, a strong actionable response in the works.  With plans to discuss the issues and significant buy-in from the State Bar,  it’s clear that these problems are being taken seriously and the women who took the time to share their experiences are being heard.  As Barnhart points out,  “It’s not just a women’s issue, it’s an issue for all lawyers.”

Copyright ©2021 National Law Forum, LLCNational Law Review, Volume VI, Number 103
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