The Meaning of Professionalism in Law: Part 3
Professionalism and Women in Law: Firm Culture and Mentors
© Verna E. Monson, Ph.D.
Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions
The following is Part 3 of a four-part series that offers a preview of the Holloran Center’s research on professionalism in law.
In Part 1 and 2 of this blog series, I provided some background on our work in studying the meaning of professionalism and lawyer ethical professional formation. In Part 3, I focus on just one theme that emerged in interviews with lawyers, which highlights an important issue for the legal profession — that of law firm culture, mentoring, and how these factors likely relate to gender diversity in law firms.
One of the common threads in the interviews Professor Neil Hamilton and I conducted, and survey responses from early career lawyers, is the culture of law firms and the critical role of mentors in relationship to professionalism. One attorney, a successful litigator, told of a period of time when she was in the early years of her career and found that the demands of a busy trial schedule out of state were pressing her to the point of exhaustion. She seriously considered leaving the firm. For months on end, she had been absent from the day-to-day workings of the firm. Even though she was a junior partner, there were signs of an impending shake-up, which caused a great deal of anxiety, even paranoia, in her words. There was a breakdown of trust that left her with a sense of impending disaster, and eroded her self confidence. It was a scenario where all too often, people turn to self medicating with alcohol or drugs for comfort. At the end of her rope, she went to a senior partner for advice. This mentor encouraged her to first deal with her stress. She took some time off, and in the process learned some better ways to cope. This mentor then challenged her to come back to her job, dust herself off, and muster the courage to lead or as he put it “look like you’re in charge, and they’ll follow.” Once back on the job, she was better able to manage her stress and set healthier boundaries with subordinates and superiors. She ended up being enormously successful over the years.
We also heard stories about struggles that are currently in progress. One lawyer shared that the culture of her firm made her feel like an outsider. She felt that her opinions were often marginalized. She was more often than not given the less high-profile cases. An articulate, soft-spoken woman of color who felt she often was pitted against her more aggressive Ivy League colleagues, she often felt alienated. At the time of the interview, she was considering leaving. Absent in her remarks in the interview, unlike our exemplar, was mention of a mentor.
Hearing her story prompted us to look to the literature in the legal profession and the academy. We learned that 62% percent of women of color surveyed in an ABA Commission Study of Women in the Profession reported “being excluded from both informal and formal networking opportunities (compared with only 4% of white men reporting the same exclusion).” This exclusion translates from organizational climate to disparity in representation and compensation. For women in law, now 31 percent of all attorneys, the proportion of law firm partners is significantly lower, at 18 percent, according to the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession 2010 report. A 2009 report by the ABA found that women lawyers earn 80.5% of the percentage of salary of their male counterparts.
According to a 2009 Catalyst survey of Fortune 500 companies, gender disparities are even greater in business. Women in executive positions are twice as likely to leave their positions than are men, according to a study just published in October’s issue of Economic Inquiry. Of executive officer positions, only 13.5 percent were women. In top earning positions, the figure drops to 6 percent. Women held only 15 percent of board positions and a full one third of companies had no women executive officers. Similar disparities in economic earning potential exist among both lawyers and women in business.
So what does this imply with respect to growth of professionalism? To us, the implication is professionalism is not merely about complying with the floor rules that prohibit discrimination or harassment. It is about fostering a climate of trust and fairness among all associates in the firm, a theme we heard from all of our exemplary attorneys. To this elite group, it meant that the highest levels of professionalism are characterized by an unconditional commitment to fostering fairness, integrity, and working for the greater good of the firm and society. It also meant cultivating an organizational climate in which individual dignity and respect for all members of the firm and all clients are uncompromised. It meant mentoring all associates, particularly those who might struggle with the social dynamics or dealing with boundary issues with clients. It also means that associates should be proactive and seek out mentors to help them through difficult situations with colleagues or clients.
So the main takeaway of this blog article is that growth in professionalism maybe be greatly enhanced by the support of mentors. As Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey state in their 2009 book, “Immunity to Change,” organizations must foster a climate of “optimal conflict” in which
“The persistent experience of some frustration, dilemma, life puzzle, quandary, or personal problem that is . . .
Perfectly designed to cause us to feel the limits of our current way of knowing. . . In some sphere of our living that we care about, with . . .
Sufficient supports so that we are neither overwhelmed by the conflict nor able to escape or diffuse it.”
So what to do if one does not have a formal mentor? Find one. But look around. Mentoring is in the spectrum of social support, and conversations with peers or others can serve as mentoring as much or more as a formal mentor. Mentoring can and does occur between people of all ages, and all levels of the hierarchy. We may not call it that, but it is still mentoring. The “new model” of mentoring means we may have several mentors around us, who may not call themselves mentors, but nonetheless, can help us see our way through a difficult spot.
In sum, we we challenge you be alert to signals that the culture might be driving out talent.
To read more about the research that Professor Neil Hamilton and I are completing this spring, drafts of our papers in press in various journals can be found on the SSRN website, through the links below:
Monson, V.E., & Hamilton, N.W. (in press). Ethical professional (trans)formation: Early career lawyers make sense of professionalism (December 31, 2010). University of St. Thomas Law Journal, November 6, 2010; U of St. Thomas Legal Studies Research Paper No. 11-01. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1733282
Monson, V.E., & Hamilton, N.W. (in press). Entering law students’ conceptions of an ethical professional identity and the role of the lawyer in society (March 12, 2010). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1581528. Journal of the Legal Profession.
Hamilton, N.W., & Monson, V.E. (in press). Ethical professional (trans)formation: Themes from interviews about professionalism with exemplary lawyers (April 6, 2011). Accepted for publication in 52 Santa Clara L. Rev. (2011), available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1804419
In Part 4 of this blog series about the Holloran Center’s research on professionalism and the topic of law firm culture, I will look at research from Stanford University on gender stereotypes and financial decision making. It sheds light on underlying communication and attitudes that may foster exclusion.
 In order to protect the confidentiality of the lawyers we interviewed, we have changed key facts and context of the stories to ensure that the identities of these lawyers will remain unknown to readers.
 ABA Commission on Women in the Professions, From Visible Invisibility to Visibly Successful: Success Strategies for Law Firms and Women of Color in Law Firms, available at http://www.abanet.org/women/woc/wocinitiative.html
 Robert Kegan & Lisa Lahey, Immunity to Change: How To Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization (2009). http://mindsatwork.com/index.php?page=about&family=books
 Eileen M. McGowan, Eric M. Stone, and Robert Kegan, Chapter 16: A Constructive-Developmental Approach to Mentoring Relationships, The Handbook of Mentoring at Work (2007). http://www.sagepub.com/books/Book227688