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Accelerating Gender Equity in the Legal Profession – on International Women's Day, and Every Day

Effie Sahihi 03 / 06 / 20

International Women’s Day is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women – while also markeing a call to action for accelerating gender equality.

On International Women’s Day, it’s worth celebrating the progress women have made in entering the legal field. According to U.S. Census figures, nearly 40% of lawyers are women, up from about 25% when the first female attorney general, Janet Reno, was appointed to office in 1993.

Yet inequities and bias well beyond the glass ceilings for promotion, inclusion and pay persist against women in the legal industry.

 

Gender Bias in the Legal Industry: The Battle Is Far From Over

The statistics of how women fare in positions of leadership and governance in the legal industry are eye-opening. Of managing partners in the 200 biggest law firms, only 4% are women, and 96% of law firms state that their highest paid partner is male.  Furthermore, a recent survey by the American Bar Association showed that women litigators are exposed to a host of other forms of bias, mostly unconscious. Those range from being interrupted more often than men, penalized for motherhood, relegated to office “housework,” and mistaken in the courtroom as administrators, janitors, or court personnel. Minority women lawyers are particularly vulnerable to being recipients of this kind of gender bias.

My own experience early in my legal career illustrates the type of situations female attorneys face in the courtroom. When I defended my first criminal case, there were few women practicing criminal litigation. In one of the first matters I ever litigated, all of the other lawyers in the counsel seating area were men. The judge looked at each of them and called them up by name. When he came to me, he raised his voice and slowed his speech, and then asked whether I spoke English because he thought I couldn’t read the “attorneys only” sign in front of the counsel seating area. I was mortified, and when I countered that I was an attorney representing my client, he was mortified, too. I don’t believe he was purposefully trying to belittle me. But rather than think I was an attorney, his first instinct was that I must be sitting there because I was a defendant’s girlfriend who didn’t speak English and was confused as to where I should be sitting. 

New Law Leads the Way in Gender Diversity in Legal

These insidious types of bias manifest even in the highest court of the land. A study of U.S. Supreme Court transcripts by Harvard Business Review found that the male justices interrupted the three female justices – Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor – three times as often as they interrupted each other during oral arguments. Even worse, the lawyers arguing to persuade the court interrupted the female justices 65.9% more often than they did the men on the bench.

Fortunately, there are examples of how women in the legal industry have bucked these biased employment environments. A positive sign in the struggle against gender bias in the legal industry is the emergence of the “new law” company trend.

Legility is one such new law company that is a leading technology provider, enterprising, adaptive to clients’ needs and able to quickly mobilize a team of lawyers from around the world to provide a customized high-level work product, all orchestrated on a foundation of ethics, equity, and employee work, home-life balance.

 

Doing the Right Thing for Diversity in Legal

Legility was founded with a mission of building a workplace that controlled for gender pay inequities, and providing growth opportunities for women in the legal profession. Legility is built on a model that quite literally has “Do the Right Thing” and “Diversity is in our DNA” as part of our core values. The company provides eDiscovery, technology-enabled legal services, consulting, managed services and flexible legal talent to corporations and law firms.

Legility designed a business model rooted in the value of providing the same opportunity to everyone, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, belief system, or socioeconomic status, and it exemplifies ways other companies in the legal industry can institute bias disrupters to gender and other types of inequities.

Legility’s expert, on-demand legal talent model also changed the way legal services are delivered by providing quality legal work on a per-project basis. The model gives the flexibility of bringing on more lawyers or scaling back depending on workloads, which enables tactical, cost-effective legal services.

The model also allows lawyers on the team to take on the amount of work that they want, providing the flexibility to strike a balance between work and home life. The per-project system is particularly beneficial to parents who may temporarily scale back on their legal practice to spend more time with their children. The lawyers can still offer their expertise on important legal cases, but work fewer hours than they normally would at a traditional law firm.

As we observe International Women’s Day, it’s important to acknowledge the pay and promotion gap that continues to exist in the legal field, but to all also highlight how we can all contribute to closing that  gap and leveling the playing field. Moreover, it is empowering to know that women have found ways to outwit a system stacked against them and achieved a level of success that their predecessors only 20 years earlier could have only imagined.

 

About the author

Effie Sahihi
Effie Sahihi

Effie Sahihi is a Senior Project Manager in Legility's Managed Services Division and has been with the company for more than eight years. She has managed a large number of projects during her tenure with Legility, concentrating on corporate electronic document review in large scale litigation and regulatory matters across a multitude of subject matters including finance, banking, automotive, airline, manufacturing, health care, contracts, employment, intellectual property, internal and governmental investigations. Effie’s experience includes practicing as a litigator for more than 15 years in Nashville, Tenn. and Las Vegas, Nev. Upon moving to Nashville, she established a litigation practice that specialized in family law. While in Las Vegas, Effie represented a United States Bankruptcy Trustee and Receiver in federal court while at Sullivan, Hill, Lewin, Rez & Engel. Prior to that, she was an associate at Koppe & Koppe, where she specialized in Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 personal and corporate bankruptcies, and criminal defense litigation. Effie is licensed to practice law in Tennessee and Nevada.

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