Women leaders are on the rise in law schools, but women attorneys are still waiting for a paradigm shift in firms and businesses — and many are leaving the field altogether. Law school leaders and alumnae discuss the triumphs and the obstacles.
by Patti Styles
In 1986, Georgia State Law appointed Marjorie Fine Knowles as dean. At the time, only a handful of law schools were helmed by women — around six percent. Wendy F. Hensel, who was named dean in November 2017, is the fourth woman in the law school’s top role (out of six total deans). While Georgia State Law has had a history of women leadership, women have only begun to close the gap nationwide.
Twenty years ago, less than 21 percent of law school deans were women. By 2017, that number grew to 31 percent, with most of the increase occurring within the last three years according to Tracy Thomas, a professor at the University of Akron School of Law and editor of Gender and the Law Prof Blog. Thomas reported in 2017 that 50 percent of the new deans that law schools appointed during the standard hiring season were women — and the percentage continues to climb. Eleven of the 18 new appointments listed in the American Bar Association’s Spring 2018 issue of Syllabus are women — that’s 61 percent, or, excluding interim and acting dean appointments, 64 percent (9 of 14).
Hensel said part of the reason for the nationwide spike in women deans is because the first female deans were very successful and opened up opportunities for other women.
“Women apply when they think there are realistic chances of getting the job,” she said.
In general, more women today can envision themselves in chief positions because they have seen more women leaders as role models, said Lisa Radtke Bliss, clinical professor and associate dean of experiential education and clinical programs.
“The more a woman can see someone like herself in a leadership role, the more real the possibility becomes for all women,” Bliss said.
The article “If It’s a New Law Dean, It’s Likely a Woman,” which was published on Law.com in March 2017, speculates that the trend is, in part, due to how significantly the role of dean has changed.
Hensel says there is probably some truth to this. “Within the last five years, law school admissions have declined nationally, by an average of 35 percent,” she explained. “Law schools used to be significant money-generators for universities, but they need to be much more fiscally responsible now and responsive to the market in ways they didn’t before. To me, that makes it an exciting time, but it also requires a different type of leader.”
Women are willing to put themselves on the front lines of problem-solving for an institution, Bliss says.
Associate Professor of Law Kelly Cahill Timmons, who served as associate dean for student affairs for 11 years, echoes this sentiment.
“Female law professors have done a lot of the important, but not as glamorous, institutional service work in law schools for many years. I suspect that some of them are recognizing that they can — and should — take their talents and experience to the next level,” she said.
Timmons also pointed out that leaders such as Hensel, who are mothers, show other women they can have a family and a career.
“Her daughter was an infant when she started at Georgia State Law as a legal writing instructor, and her son was born two years later. Everything Dean Hensel has accomplished as a legal academic, she did while also being a mom. I think this should be inspiring to all of our students and alumni who strive to balance work and family life,” Timmons said.
Will the increase in female deans change legal education in any way?
Timmons suspects it may lead law schools to focus additional attention and resources on “the whole student,” including students’ mental and physical wellness. “That is definitely true of Dean Hensel,” she said.
Bliss said she hopes it will have tremendous impact on the future of law school and, more importantly, the profession. “At Georgia State, we have a culture of innovating and an entrepreneurial spirit that has always made this place full of energy and optimism,” she said. “We are constantly adjusting the curriculum to help create opportunities for our students to learn and grow and to be ready for what the legal profession is going to become.”
Stephanie Everett (J.D. ’02), the community manager of Lawyerist.com, said legal education is changing, but not just because more women are leading. “Any time we get different voices, it will change, and that’s a good thing.”
The trend stops here
Although women are making strides in legal education leadership, representation in other parts of the legal field is occurring at a considerably slower pace. The American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Legal Profession stated in its 2017 report that women make up 36 percent of the legal profession— even though women have been almost 50 percent of law graduates for more than a decade.
In leadership roles, the numbers are even bleaker. According to the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL), only 19 percent of women are equity partners — a number that has increased only slightly within the past 10 years. Women are 30 percent of non-equity partners.
The Georgia Association for Women Lawyers (GAWL) studied this “leaky pipeline,” a term to describe the situation in which women, who are underrepresented in the upper ranks of many scientific and professional fields, are exiting those industries at much higher rates than men.
In its summary, the 2016 report states: “Overall, significant differences are observed between women’s and men’s experiences as attorneys in the legal profession: women are less satisfied, are more likely to consider leaving, believe they are a poorer fit with their organizations, feel less successful in their careers, and feel less appreciated by their workplaces than men feel.”
To combat this, many law firms have policies and practices that attempt to retain talented women lawyers. However, those efforts don’t seem to be achieving the desired effect.
“The problem for law firms is the same as it is for the rest of corporate America — there’s a lack of flexibility,” Hensel said. “A reality for many women is that they have families and need a way to balance everything. Frankly, that applies to many men these days too.”
The expectation of being accessible 24/7 is also an issue. “When the client wants your attention, they want it right now,” Hensel said. “That’s very challenging to deal with. However, when firms lose good people, it’s very expensive to recruit and train new ones.”
“Until there’s a true paradigm shift, these retention problems will continue,” said Adwoa Ghartey-Tagoe Seymour (J.D. ’06), assistant general counsel for Cox Enterprises Inc. “We’ve broken the glass ceiling, but in most cases, we’re still the primary caregiver. That’s hard to handle. I’ve seen incredibly bright, Ivy League–educated women struggle with this. And it’s not as if they were people who didn’t like their careers. They loved being lawyers, but they couldn’t help but think, ‘Look what you’re asking me to choose between.’”
In addition, most retention policies only focus on predicting the number of billable hours a working mom can produce.
“When female attorneys want to achieve better work-life balance, most firms’ responses are to reduce hours and, therefore, reduce pay,” Everett said. “That seems like a broken way to fix an already broken system.”
Everett recalls a conversation when she was pregnant about how her maternity leave would negatively impact her firm’s revenue. She also knew that if she finished her work ahead of schedule on a Friday, she couldn’t leave early because she’d end up having to make up her unbilled hours before the end of the weekend.
Many men are struggling too, Everett added. “There’s a much higher rate of suicide, alcoholism and other issues in this field,” she said. “Billable-hour quotas are killing us; it killed a piece of my soul when I did it.”
One solution is to switch to value-based billing, which a number of women-led law firms are starting to adopt, Everett said. “We need to promote these new — and better — approaches. It will benefit lawyers just as much as their clients.”
Success and staying motivated
The ways in which some women leaders measure their own success also seem to break from tradition.
“It’s easy to get caught up in titles and accolades,” Seymour said. “When you focus on that, you may do well by some standards, but you often aren’t happy. I can’t live that way. I’ve found that when I’m walking in my purpose, that’s when I’m most successful.”
Everett measures success not only by how well she’s able to help her clients, but by how much she makes a positive impact in her community. “I strive to live a life that reflects my values and leave the world a better place than I found it. In fact, I’ve written that goal on top of my planner to remind myself of it each day.”
The challenge of “balancing it all”— while also having to deal with gender bias — compels many women to zone in on what’s important to them and on what keeps them motivated or passionate about their jobs.
“I always try to do the best I can with what I have at any particular time,” Hensel said. “I’ve learned to accept the reality that few days will end with everything done and everyone happy. Success for me is keeping my priorities front and center.”
Hensel said her love of Georgia State Law and its students is what keeps her invigorated. “I think about how I can influence their path for the better, and that motivates me every day.”
Timmons also is energized by the students. “My time in the classroom reminded me how amazing our students are and reaffirmed my commitment to representing their interests as part of the administrative team,” she said.
Similarly, Everett is inspired by her clients. She helps attorneys run their firms more efficiently so they can focus on what matters most to them — practicing law.
“When the lightbulb goes on and it clicks for them, that gets me excited,” she said. “I enjoy knowing that I really am making a difference. A single mom that I helped who had two teenage kids told me she was afraid if she didn’t change the way she ran her business, she would end up getting sick. She was overwhelmed and running herself into the ground. Now she’s approaching her law practice in a much more effective way. I love knowing I was able to help her improve her business and the way she lives her life.”
Knowing when to take “mental health days” helps keep Seymour grounded. “Being a litigator is exciting; however, it’s also draining to be in an adversarial environment all the time,” she said. “I try to stop and smell the roses every so often, then I can get back into it.”
Exploration is the key to rejuvenation for Bliss. “I especially enjoy traveling to places where I can experience something very different from my everyday life, whether it’s the landscape or natural surroundings, language, food or culture,” she said. “I always learn valuable lessons when I’m challenged to communicate or navigate in an unfamiliar place.”
Elevating each other
Bliss also stressed the importance of surrounding yourself with an uplifting community.
“I found my way in my leadership journey by connecting with friends and colleagues, mostly women, who were willing to share their wisdom and professional insights with me,” she said. “For example, I’m fortunate to be a part of a wonderful national and international community of clinical legal educators who are truly inspiring scholars, teachers and lawyers. I’ve also been the recipient of support, advice and mentoring from so many, both inside and outside my institution. All of this has enriched my professional life tremendously.”
Seymour and Everett both feel the diverse and inclusive culture at Georgia State Law helped prepare them to adapt and persevere, as leaders and as mothers who work outside the home.
“My daughter was five when I started law school, and at Georgia State Law, I felt like there was implied permission for my personal life to meld with my professional life,” Seymour said. “Hopefully that type of empathy and acceptance will begin to infuse into our industry as well. Working mothers need to know it’s okay to bring your whole self to work. It’s okay to be who you are.”
Bliss said that environment also translates to the school’s leadership. “This inclusive culture recognizes the ways in which everyone in the building contributes to our collective success. Our culture has allowed people to grow and develop in ways that suited them and benefitted our institution and its students.”
Free to be me
Everett said when she began her career 16 years ago, she probably would have said she wanted to be considered one of the boys. Now, she feels differently. “I want everyone to be recognized for the voice they bring. We all have our own experiences. Being a woman isn’t the whole story for me,” she said. “I’ll be even more excited when we’re all celebrated for who we are as individuals.”
Seymour said her experiences contribute to what she has to offer. “I’m a black, female lawyer and feel that both my gender and my race help me bring something different to the table,” she explained.
Hensel recognizes the importance of this too. “It used to be that women had to adopt a masculine-style of leadership in order to be taken seriously. That just doesn’t work for me.
“A critical component of leadership is authenticity,” she said. “I know that I am at my best when I am collaborative rather than confrontational. There is no question in my mind that we achieve more effective results when we engage a diverse set of voices and strengths in problem-solving.”
While it’s generally agreed that every person has their own approach and style of leadership, and that differences are not wholly based on gender, there are certain attributes common among women leaders.
Bliss said one of the strengths she’s noticed in many female deans and associate deans is that they’re skilled communicators. “Effective communication, including the ability to listen, is valuable for deans and associate deans because they interact with so many different constituents and must often navigate challenging conversations.”
Timmons has noticed women’s ability to balance the demands of different stakeholders. “Maintaining balance is something we deal with every day, especially for those of us with children,” she said. “The female leaders I work with also run particularly efficient meetings. Their time is valuable, and they recognize the value of others’ time as well.”
When it comes to dealing with challenges, Seymour said women leaders tend to be particularly effective at collaboration and dispute resolution. “In the practices I worked for, I noticed how great they were about listening to everyone’s input, not just the loudest person in the room. Being open to diverse opinions generated better solutions.”
Hensel said it’s also important to recognize that leadership has many manifestations. “You don’t have to sit at the head of the table to make a difference in someone’s life. You can lead by example too. Collectively, that makes a significant difference.”
Leadership is about more than power, Hensel added. “It’s about helping people. It’s about doing something — even when you don’t want to, even when it’s hard. It’s doing something for someone without expecting anything in return.”