Making Work, Work

On 20 November 2019, Obelisk Support joined the first UK edition of Women, Influence & Power in Law UK (WIPL UK), a conference gathering senior female in-house lawyers and private practice lawyers to discuss leadership and legal issues. A topic the event came back to more than once was the challenge of managing multiple generations in a legal team. Lawyers are working longer and as a result, legal teams and corporate teams in general are a more diverse group which creates a relatively new issue – generational diversity.

Generations & Generational Stereotypes

To understand generations in your legal team, it’s important to define them:

  • Baby boomers, also known as Boomers, are the generation that were born mostly following World War II, typically born from 1946 to 1964.
  • Generation X, commonly abbreviated to Gen X, is the generation born from the early-to-mid 1960s to the early 1980s.
  • Millennials, also known as Generation Y, are the cohort of people born from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s to early 2000s.
  • Generation Z, or simply Gen Z, is the cohort of people born after the Millennials. Sometimes known as digital natives as they do not know a world without the internet.

Generational stereotypes could be harmless if they did not get in the way of work.

  • Boomers are perceived as being out of touch and disinterested in learning new skills,
  • Gen X are perceived as cynical loners at work that make poor team members, and
  • Millennials are perceived as snowflakes.

Each of these stereotypes, whether or not based on truth, reveals deep divides that can create real issues when approaching problems. How do you get older people to work with younger ones without being patronising? How do you help younger workers see they have to build up experience before promotion comes? That’s why getting past stereotypes is the only way forward in successful legal teams. In fact, research done at the University of Kentucky and Kutztown University reports that despite the many stereotypes of each generation, there is no real difference when it comes to work ethic or job values.

There are, however, different expectations.

Motivation & Talent Retention

For Mitzi Berberi, Former Vice President and Deputy General Counsel, FOX Networks, age and generation really impacted her team when it came to motivation. Before generational diversity was well understood, the prevailing attitude was that motivating teams was standard. Successful lawyers were rewarded with more (and hopefully, better) work and got promoted to work some more. However that is not the case for newer generations — they don’t perceive rewards the same way as the older generation. They perceive additional workloads as punishments rather than rewards, which begs the question – how do you motivate them?

According to Katherine Thomas, General Counsel, Travelodge, human nature is such that we don’t understand why others are not excited by same things as us. It is important for people to understand what motivates other members of the team. The diversity debate has so far focused largely on gender, orientation and ethnicity but we talk less frequently about age. This was reinforced by Natalie Tan, Global Head Legal Strategic Transactions, Novartis Pharmaceuticals. At large companies, there are women’s groups, LGBTQ+ groups, but there are no places for younger and older generations to get together. Age transcends all the other diversity issues and so far, it’s mostly visible in a negative light.

An employment lawyer in the audience mentioned how sexual orientation and age have become huge issues, resulting in a lot of complaints for age discrimination.

Ageism & Industry

Ageism, or any discrimination based on age, depends a lot on the sector and how the issue of age is viewed as discussed by the panel. While people in the pharmaceutical industry are traditional, viewing age and experience as qualifications to take account before promoting people, the media industry skews towards the very young. In that work sphere, the younger generation perceives older people as outdated.

Unconsciously, Gen X lawyers start taking themselves out of some roles and wonder where they are going next. Pushing ageism to the extreme, some professionals wonder if they need to take botox to remain relevant. In the media where professionals feel older much younger, the only way up is to move to HQ but most are in fact too young for HQ where the customer base expects senior executives.

In the legal industry, age is a double-edged sword. In private practice, it’s about how much PQE lawyers have. Age is really valued by clients, to the point that some clients want “grey hair” in leadership positions for their team. It’s the opposite in-house. For their external resourcing, some clients call legal services providers to look for an experienced lawyer (7 years PQE is the magic number) but not someone who is too experienced. Said a member of the audience, “lawyers go stale and are not employable anymore after 8 years PQE.”

How do you re-position the age debate to make it work for all generations?

Age & Work Sustainability

The legal industry needs to innovate and promote work sustainability, acknowledging that some solicitors don’t want to go up the corporate ladder. After a while when their colleagues don’t get promoted to senior positions, people judge and wonder why they are coasting, why they are not partners yet.

Work life balance is changing. Not everybody wants to be promoted and there’s nothing wrong with that. People should be allowed to have a sustainable career and it should not be perceived as “wrong.”

Moving away from PQE

Does the legal profession need to move away from PQE? All attendees agreed that in the UK, PQE is used as a tag to categorise lawyers but it is a bit lazy. Years of experience is relevant but it’s relevant experience that matters – not PQE. Some generalists with a long work experience could be less well-placed to take on an issue than juniors with less but very niche experience. Valuing relevant experience would shift the focus in legal teams from age to skills.

Generational Diversity Tips for General Counsels

Generational diversity means that general counsels need to tailor to the individual a lot more. A few tips suggested by WIPL panel and audience included the following:

  • Understand what motivates your team.
  • Build internal policies with age in mind. Family policies are not just about children. People have siblings, parents who are getting older.
  • Empower the younger generation and help them capitalise on their enthusiasm, embracing who they are and what their individual skills are. If they are too casual, show them how to behave in the job that they want and in the way they want people to perceive them.
  • Give older team members more autonomy and responsibility, praise them for what they is good at. Something as small as a title change can really help how they perceive a job. Indeed if they older, chances are their friends have senior titles. Instead of “senior counsel,” change their title to senior legal counsel.
  • Be sensitive. The general counsel of a large publisher had a very young team that included a person who only qualified recently as a lawyer and was very sensitive to PQE. In their team, they don’t talk about PQE. The general counsel of a large multinational had a baby boomer on the team and wondered if she should approach the retirement conversation or not. When she did mention it, the person hadn’t thought about it so they mutually agreed to develop her in the same way as other members on the team and ignore the retirement issue.
  • Encourage flexible working. Some people want a better life and don’t want to spend two hours a day in commute. Said Thomas, “I don’t care at what time you do your job if you get it done. Ultimately, you know how long have been working for.” In-house have a responsibility to push flexible working on private practice. She went on, “Tell them you don’t want emails at midnight or during weekends. Tell the lawyers who have kids, ‘It’s fine, send it to me tomorrow morning.’ Nobody needs to send an email at midnight to make a point.”
  • Encourage time management best practices. While private practice has long been a stronghold of face time and long hours, in-house culture has shifted away from this. Some European countries actually look unfavourably on long hours. German lawyers are strict about work hours and managing day hours efficiently. They have a very mathematical view of time management: if you work long hours, either you are not able to work efficiently or you’ve got too much work to do and they need to hire another person. Long hours and being online at midnight mean that you’re not able to do your job in your work hours and it makes lawyers look bad. If a team member works long hours, have a conversation about efficiency and best practices.
  • Minimise meetings. Lawyers don’t need to attend all meetings unless they are necessary. If they’re called to a meeting, suggest that they find out what the agenda is and check whether they are needed there. There are only so many hours in a working day and meetings can reduce productivity if not managed efficiently.

Ultimately, GCs are responsible for managing workload but also people which is the way it should be. Age diverse teams mean that GCs need to learn how to develop personally and professionally, strengthening their ability to flex their management style to each individual’s needs.

 

The Legal UpdateWomen in Law

The Law360 Satisfaction Survey always makes intriguing reading – providing, in U.S. lawyer’s own words, a far reaching analysis of level of happiness in the industry, the best firms to work for, and of course key insights into diversity and gender representation. This year, in light of the #MeToo movement that began in Hollywood, the subject of sexual harassment is also a talking point.

Among the things we learned were that even with the prospect of high earnings, law graduates are bogged down and stressed by student debts as other graduates, with nearly a third grappling with six-figure debts, leading to many putting off major life events such as starting a family.

We also saw some evidence of progress being made in terms of more women lawyers in firms led by women from the Glass Ceiling Report, though that progress was deemed to be lagging in larger firms, and fairly static overall in the five years that the survey has been conducted, as explained by editor-in-chief Anne Urda. However, there was a particular finding in the Satisfaction Survey that put this picture into an uncomfortable context: Women lawyers were still reporting, in startling numbers, incidences of direct gender discrimination and sexual harassment. Shockingly, a third of female respondents report having experienced sexual harassment, and more than half said they had faced discrimination. Meaning we’re not just dealing with a lack of action or effective measures to encourage women in law – women are still actively being shut out, shut down and even harassed and assaulted because of their gender.

Lawyers are Saying #MeToo – Are They Being Heard?

The Attic recently published some of the derogatory things that are said to women in law. With credit to those on the receiving end, those women recounted their experiences with clarity and, in some instances, wry humour. That doesn’t make it ok for any of them – and it’s impossible not to get angry on their behalf when faced with such stories and statistics that should have no place in any society, let alone in the year 2018.

Lawyers are widely perceived as being pragmatic and stoic in nature. Though passionate about the rule of law and justice for the people they deal with, they achieve these aims in a reserved and reasoned manner. They understand more than most the importance of process and the harm that a bad one can do for both accused and accuser. They exchange mostly in polite scrutiny of their industry, because they approach issues with a level head, but also perhaps out of fear that any sense of anger or outrage could hurt their reputation. And we all know the negative responses that follow when a woman publicly expresses a feeling about something… We are perhaps unlikely then to see some the type of attention drawing activism that has been part of the #MeToo movement and Time’s Up campaign in Hollywood, but that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been a concerted effort to use the momentum of the now international conversation to draw attention to the issue in the legal industry.

But many feel the industry needs to go further – beyond investigating individual instances of misconduct – and actually requires a culture overhaul, according to speakers on a panel at the American Bar Association‘s annual meeting Thursday in Chicago. How can those in the industry make this cultural shift happen? Will it need a pivotal #MeToo moment to create real change?

Power and Privilege

In a feature for Vice, a group of lawyers discussed the conduct of former United States Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski, and an interesting point was raised about the power structure of court life tenure federal judges and law student carrying the aforementioned burden of debt – losing out financially simply isn’t an option for many young lawyers, so they are more likely to put up with wrongdoing against them. These hierarchical arrangements in courts must be discussed as well as how people starting out in law can be safeguarded from abuses of power.

Before conversations were happening in public, many women put the responsibility on their own shoulders to prove themselves and perform better to convince people that they were not just sexual objects. Once conversations came out in the open more, the men on the panel recounted conversation with other men who began to question whether they could say wrong thing, and there was a backlash of fear of the movement. There was also the suggestion that some may choose to not hire women at all because of the ‘risk’, or exclude them from career development opportunities such as events and business dinner.

As the group lamented, if the response to #MeToo and reports of sexual inappropriateness in the industry is to limit women’s opportunities further, it hasn’t even begun to cause the culture shift that is needed. That excluding women altogether from job opportunities or events is even mooted as a solution is deeply concerning. All too often the burden is passed to victims to either tolerate the behaviour or accept a space is not for them because of the behaviour, rather than challenging the behaviour itself. This needs to be tackled as broader concern.

The Precipice of Change

However, the positive is that people now feel they can speak more freely about what has happened to them, and there is no going back from that.

Participants at the American Bar Association Annual Meeting event this month agreed, with co-founder of Time’s Up Legal Defence Fund Tina Tchen saying: “we are at an inflection point where we can shift what is going on in our workplaces.”

It is important to not view the issue of sexual harassment in isolation, the ABA president and chair of the panel Hilarie Bass  said: “What we are really talking about is building workplace cultures that are very diverse and very inclusive in every sense of the word. And that we are equipping managers and workers at law firms how to treat each other better in order to change the way workplaces operate.” And there have been moves in many organisation to make ‘say something do something’ a part of workplace policies and training, making everyone responsible for inclusivity and wellbeing. Secrecy and innuendo allowed Harvey Weinstein to get away with what he did for a long time, so a culture of openness needs to nurtured. We can’t simply rely on victims to tell their stories; those who are unaffected have to be vigilant and willing to challenge wrongdoing openly.

Panellist Nicole VanderDoes expands on the discussion in the Legal Network On The Road podcast. Her advice to people entering the profession or who have experienced troubling behaviour is to check what procedures and reporting mechanisms have been set up in their organisation for dealing with uncomfortable behaviour and misconduct. She also reminds us that those who might prefer to take the route of excluding women further to avoid the issue are also legally liable for this kind of discrimination too.

In others words, all in the industry must keep the conversation going, and leaders must continue to listen and to implement tangible measures against harassment and discrimination, to ensure we don’t see statistics like these again in 2019.

Women in Law

We spend a lot of time celebrating the progress being made in diversity and gender equality in the legal industry. However, every so often we come across a statistic or study that makes us stop and realise just how much more work needs to be done to invest in female talent and to get rid of gender bias.

One that stood out to us recently was the realisation that still only 6.4% of Fortune 500 companies are run by female CEOs. Add to that the continuing pattern across industries that the higher up the ranks a woman gets, the pay gap widens, as seen in a study by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI). Even women who have branched out on their own find they come up against more barriers to progress than their male counterparts. Female founders and business leaders are struggling to achieve investment – a truly shocking 91% of publicly announced growth company cash investment deals were companies without a single female founder.

Within law, the picture is just as disheartening. Though there are many measures being taken to improve opportunities for women, they don’t seem to be having the effect one would hope. A McKinsey study of North American law firms, Women in the Workplace 2017, found only 19% of equity partners are women, and women are 29% less likely to reach the first level of partnership than are men

All Talk, No Action on Gender Bias?

It appears for all the progress in conversations around the importance of enabling more women to succeed and thrive in her chosen career path, there is a huge gap between acknowledging problems and taking the steps to address them. Gender bias is still very much present in big business decisions.

Why are companies, law firms and investors still reluctant to put their money where their mouth is? Here are just some of the lingering problems preventing investment in female talent, and the measures that need be taken to resolve them.

Problem #1 Unconscious Gender Bias

Investors, employers and company boards are all too often surrounded by people that look and think the way they do – the all too familiar ‘Old Boys Club’. This is not necessarily down to overt, conscious sexism or aversion to diversity – more that people don’t see the problem with being surrounded by people who look like and have similar backgrounds to themselves. It is important to confront the gender bias that we hold and teach ways to overcome them.

Measures to take: Facebook recently revealed that they have created an anti bias training course for employees, to help them interrupt and correct bias where they see it in the workplace. The company has also shared information, videos and presentations on its website for public access, so this a good place to start for anyone thinking of implementing their own anti-bias training for themselves or their employees.

Problem #2 Caregivers and Flexible Working

Employers are still far more concerned about women taking time out to have children or to care for family members than they are about men. Though parental and caring responsibilities are becoming more equally shared, women remain primary caregivers in our society, and therefore either have to juggle endlessly or step back from their career path. Women with family commitments, or those simply seen as being of childbearing age/circumstance may still be overlooked for promotion or ‘demanding’ roles due to the reluctance to allocate for flexible working.

Measures to take: It’s time for more organisations to take flexible working seriously as a wider part of company culture, rather than a case by case solution to a problem. Employers and employees both play a role in making this happen. The Law Society of Ireland provides a clear and comprehensive guide to conversations and statistics around flexible working practices. The more commonplace flexible working becomes in our industry, the less barriers primary caregivers will face in career progression.

Problem #3 Lack of Incentivisation

Something that is often missing from the conversations around inequality is incentives for organisations to invest efforts to tackle the gender bias problem for the benefit of all. There is real pressing need for companies to invest in female talent to drive extraordinary returns and the economy forward.

Measures to take: Look at the proof of the business case for gender equality. This McKinsey study is a few years old but shows just how essential female talent is for competitiveness, with companies in the bottom quartile for both gender and ethnicity diversity statistically less likely to achieve above average monetary returns compared to other similar companies. Obelisk Support is also living proof that tearing up the traditions and focusing on both men and women who want to work differently can lead to big things – global expansion, policy influence, award recognition, and being an important part of the drive for change in the legal industry. We have seen first hand the rewards that can be reaped from investing in female talent.

Problem #4 Lingering Belief in Inequality

Underlying all these issues is that a small but significant portion of society still believes that women are not equal to men in terms of ability and potential to lead and play the same roles in society. That is a far bigger problem to address, but facing up to this uncomfortable reality can help shape conversations we need to have to deconstruct societal imbalance and change thinking.

Measures to take: There is no single remedy to this overarching issue, just the continuation of discussion and of efforts to change what we can in our own pool in order to create a ripple effect. Despite slower progress than we might have expected in some areas, it is important not to lose hope and realise that small changes come together to change the culture at large. We are heading in the right direction to eradicate these ideas once and for all.