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Legal Marketplace

How free speech underpins expanding women’s leadership in legal

Kristine Newkirk  Business writer

· 5 minute read

Kristine Newkirk  Business writer

· 5 minute read

Efforts are underway at more progressive law firms and law schools to build female leaders by developing and protecting the free speech rights of all women

The legal system in the United States is based on the specific framework laid out in the U.S. Constitution, and the Constitution recognizes the singularity and contribution of each voice. Thus, when the basic right to free speech is muted or undermined, so too is the strength of our legal infrastructure.

The ability to speak freely holds power. “Right now, we have this huge push for what’s fair between genders and what’s fair between races,” says Nicole Westbrook, a commercial litigator and executive committee member of Denver-based law firm Jones & Keller. The drive is seen in the waves of global social movements supporting the well-founded ideals that diversity, inclusion, and social justice elevate all voices.

At U.S. institutions, expanding the role and presence of women at the top can go far in promoting these democratic principles. The law profession needs more female attorneys in the C-suite of U.S. law firms who can voice their views in full and equal participation with men to effectively counsel clients and lead organizations.

Efforts are underway at Vanderbilt University and more progressive U.S. law firms to build female leaders in law, and in doing so, develop and protect the rights of all to be heard. In reaching for and achieving a gender balance in leadership, U.S. law firms allow diversity in thought and language to uphold the legal profession and the judicial system.

Nurturing diversity in thought

Despite entering the legal profession today in roughly equal numbers as men, women who launch their careers in U.S. law firms are still far more likely to be leave before they assume leadership positions, creating a gender imbalance at the top. In 2019, women made up 47% of associates at U.S. law firms but only 21% of equity partners and 28% of executive committee members.

While the reasons women leave the legal profession have been well-documented over the years, Caitlin “Cat” Moon, director of innovation design for the Program on Law & Innovation at Vanderbilt Law School, increasingly sees the finger pointed at a lack of diversity and has made creating more diversity a core focus in her classes.

Efforts are underway at Vanderbilt University and more progressive U.S. law firms to build female leaders in law, and in doing so, develop and protect the rights of all to be heard.

Indeed, Moon observes that women students are more likely than men to report feelings of imposter syndrome, and are less likely to feel they belong in law school. This is reflected regularly in social media posts shared by law students and practicing lawyers (specifically via Twitter). “I observe women underestimating their own abilities and not being self-promotional,” Moon says, adding that this can impact the roles women pursue and the choices they make in law.

As a law professor, Moon is in a position to fundamentally unseat that thinking. She begins every class she teaches — five in all offered on a rotating basis — talking about the statistics in the profession, diversity, and the well-being of practicing attorneys, knowing that students must understand the nature of the profession they are entering to succeed.

In 2021, Moon began offering a new course, Leading in Law, designed to help all students understand their own natural leadership skills and use them to shape their professional path. While the course is open to all students, she says that “women need this course more than men to really empower them to advocate for themselves and go forward with confidence.”

Building culturally diverse firms

Once out of law school, the onus shifts to law firms to create a diverse culture from the top down where all voices can be heard. Jones & Keller’s Westbrook says this includes creating career trajectories that promote, compensate, and channel talented female attorneys into leadership roles. Certain types of law firms and practices offer greater opportunities to create options that work for women and build a diverse pool of attorneys. So-called lifestyle law firms, which prioritize quality work-product over facetime in the office, and firms with compensation structures that reward smart law over soaring billable hour totals, offer similar opportunities to female and male lawyers.

Mentorship programs where senior attorneys advocate for female associates throughout their time in the law firm are helping to support fairer and broader promotional opportunities across practice areas. And law firms that adjust their long-standing expectations around how and where attorneys work — easier now with the practices learned navigating through a pandemic — are effectively recruiting talented female attorneys seeking diverse cultures and flexible work environments rather than hefty paychecks, Westbrook says.

Elevating the feminine voice

Will women in law be heard? Judge Alia Moses, the first female federal judge presiding in the Western District of Texas, says when voices are muted, it tends to disproportionately impact those who do not have strong voices in the first place. In this dynamic, the women hurt the most are those who have been taught to take a step back on issues, are easily intimidated or swayed to say the right thing as opposed to saying what they think or feel, and those who have assimilated into a system that doesn’t necessarily respect the full role of women in our society.

But, by developing female leaders in the legal profession and creating channels for everybody to be heard, Judge Moses says we honor the Constitutional roots of our profession and our country. “Whether we agree with them or not is not the point,” she says. “We’ve got to let them be heard.”

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