My friend John Chisholm sent me an article on why diversity programs in law firms are failing. (Talk about a small world–An Aussie sending an article from a Canadian publication to a guy in Chicago!) The article includes this quote, from a Stanford Law White Paper:
These broader problems are complex and multifaceted, and have both structural dimensions—such as the impact on women lawyers of “conservative and rigid workplace structures,” including the billable hour and associated expectations of total availability, or the opacity of firm management—as well as societal and cultural dimensions, such as the influence of implicit and in-group biases on purportedly “meritocratic” systems. These problems also manifest themselves in a number of ways, and ultimately result in disproportionate impacts upon the retention and advancement of women lawyers.
My partner, Nicole Auerbach, spoke on this issue a few years ago (here short presentation is well worth watching), relaying some personal observations about how the billable hour, and systems built on billable hours, hurt her specifically and women generally.
We are long past debating whether a problem exists in the legal profession, particularly in BigLaw. The question is what to do about it.
To suggest one possible answer, I’d like to relay some advice I received from a wise man. I was at an event and found myself sitting next to Ted Sorenson, long a hero of mine given his contributions to President Kennedy, who my blue-collar, Irish-Catholic family revered when I was growing up. In the course of discussing an issue I was having at a former law firm, Sorenson said “You need to decide whether you want to spend your time getting your firm to move toward the space you want to be in, or whether you want to be in the space you want to be in.” For me, it was like getting hit in the head with a 2×4, and a year later, Valorem was born. Ted, as he asked to be called, cautioned me that some people like the process of getting an institution to move, but went on to say that others simply wanted the outcome. For me, I was tired of process and wanted to live in the land of results.
Why do I bring this story up? What relevance does it have to the diversity problem facing law and BigLaw? Diverse lawyers need to decide whether the process of change, painfully slow and imperfect on the best of days, is acceptable. The alternative is to design a new platform, one that reflects your values and priorities. For me, and for Nicole and our fellow founders, the joy of designing an new way of doing things, of having a firm built on our values, of controlling our future and having our fingerprints on a new way of doing things far surpasses the pluses that we walked away from when we decided we wanted to be in the space we wanted to be in.
After Ted Sorenson offered me his advice, I could only thank him for removing the shroud that had covered my mind’s eye and bring me a clarity of vision I had not had before. Perhaps his advice can help others who want to be in the space they want to be in.