April 11, 2007
The Rules of the Game
Posted by Christine Hurt

Last night I had the pleasure of being a commentator at the University of Illinois Women's Law Society's Symposium, entitled "Don't Embark on Your Legal Career Until You Know:  The Rules of the Game."  I still don't know the rules of the game, but thank goodness for the keynote speaker, Jane Kirenzo Pigott.  Jane, a former partner at Winston & Strawn, is the managing director of R3 Group LLC, which provides consulting services to professional firms on "enhancing an organization's competitive edge by allowing the organization to utilize, retain and promote more fully its key human resource assets."  For those who couldn't be there, I thought I would list some of the speaker's "rules" and perhaps provide some commentary on them.  Some I think are more incisive than others, and some seem inconsistent, but here they are:

Someone has to stay and lead.  I think this is right.  Jane ponted out the statistics to show that law firms have had plenty of women in the associate pipeline for decades, but few stay to reach the top.  Unfortunately, those that want to stay carry with them the baggage of those who have left, so they are presumed to be temporary also.  Every woman who stays in a law firm and moves up the pipeline does a mitzvah for those who follow.  (This from someone (me) who left, of course.)

There is no Prince.  This point was somewhat a rehashing of the Cinderella Complex:  no one is going to come rescue you, so take your career seriously and provide for yourself.  However, I think Jane also meant it in a non-romantic way.  She said that at work, "if you exceed expectations, no one will take care of you."  I think her point was that female associates have a fear of exceeding expectations, but that this fear is misplaced.  I guess my spin would be "Are you Scarlett or Melanie?"  Sure, everyone loves Melanie and takes care of her because she's so weak and fragile, but who dies and who survives?

Unfortunately, on the romantic side, I think there is a corollary here.  At some point, your quasi-Prince may come, who is more Prince than frog and quite smashing.  This is when the hard decisions will have to be made about career and family.  We need more rules for what happens when your (almost) Prince does come.

Play to Win.  Jane made a point that women play to lose.  I'm not sure what this means exactly.  I know that when I was in practice, we could sort people by whether they were "short-timers" or "long-timers."  Short-timers acted exactly as you would think.  Of course, long-timers get better work.  Also, I know that a lot of people that I started with would say "You know, I don't care if I make partner."  I never knew if they meant this or if they were just hedging their bets.  I did know, though, that even if someone didn't want to stay and make partner, they should act like it until the day they left.

There are no role models.  Here, Jane suggested having a number of mentoring relationships because no one person will be an exact role model.  She pointed to generation theory to show that Gen Y, who is now graduating, will be looking to Baby Boomers to be role models, and Baby Boomers aren't very good role models.  A lot of the symposium was spent talking about female role models and networking.  I had to admit that in practice, I had no female role models.  I had female friends, but there was no female partner taking me under her wing.  First, there just weren't that many female partners, and those that were there weren't really like me.  I had lots of very good male role models and mentors, though.

Be a player, not a spectator.  Jane reported that she had been in meetings where associates coming up for partner were put in piles, one was the "worker bee" pile and the other was the partner material pile.  She said most women were put in the "worker bee" pile because the partners would say, "Don't know her."  So, be sure and ask for assignments that give you visibility, and be noticed.  The only thing that I could add here is that in transactional practice, women sometimes have superior organizational skills and so get put on tasks that are very "behind-the-scenes," like running the closing table.  It's great to be noticed for your strengths, but you also have to be in roles where you have client contact and responsibility for documents, etc.  Otherwise, whenever there's a 50-state research question or a huge document-intensive deal, you'll be picked to basically be the stage manager.  I remember someone pointing out a female senior associate like that to me and saying, "She's too good of an associate to make partner."

You don't get what you deserve, you get what you ask for.  That's self-explanatory, I guess. 

Bluff.  When Jane tells women to bluff, she's basically telling them to at least get close to assessing their own strengths realistically.  She provided data from a Harvard Law School survey that when asked to assess performance, women consistently underassessed themselves and men overassessed themselves.  Not only be aware of your own worth, but tell others of your successes.  Your successes must be visible to others, and only you control that. 

Life Isn't Fair.  Also self-explanatory.

Don't Cry at the Office.  I thought this was funny because I had recently read a post of Feminist Law Professors entitled There's No Crying in Law School!  Jane acknowledged this was sort of a stupid rule because if you could control your crying, then you wouldn't be crying!  But, she assured the audience that everyone would someday cry at the office and to try to mitigate the harm by asking those present to leave and by not running to the bathroom.  Almost every woman I know cried during their first year of practice.  At Baker Botts, we were lucky enough to have a magic button on our desk that automatically shut or door, locked it and turned on a red light to signal "do not disturb."  I'm sure the purpose of that button was not so that associates could have a good cry in private, but it worked. 

Utilize Leverage.  This rule related to using the "transactional economy."  When someone asked you a favor, have a return favor in mind.  Jane asserted that men are better at this quid pro quo market than women, who will do favors for free.  So, if someone comes and asks you to fill out a table that the firm bought at some charity fundraiser, say sure and next weekend I can come along when you take that client out golfing.

Celebrate Instead of Dwell.  Celebrate successes visibly and don't dwell on failure.

Understand the Impact of Nonverbal Communication.  I think this rule was about dressing the part. 

Define Meritocracy.  I think I blanked here for a minute.

Let's Define What Success Is.  This rule is slightly inconsistent with the Rule that Someone Has to Stay and Lead because it encourages alternatives to the partner pipeline.  However, I think Jane was right in that women have to support each other and not bad-mouth other women's choices.  Unfortunately, I think most women get so invested in their choice either to stay and make partner or go part-time or be a full-time mom that we tend to think the choice has some moral element to it.  Therefore, other choices are immoral.  This has to stop.

All in all, it was a very fun symposium, and I'm grateful for the Women's Law Society for letting me be a commentator, along with Julie Mandanas (partner, Jenner & Block); Kara Cenar (partner, Bell Boyd & Lloyd), and Lauren Wolven (Brown Brothers Harriman Trust Co.).

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Comments (5)

1. Posted by Doug H. on April 11, 2007 @ 12:37 | Permalink

It occured to me reading the list that many of the points are relevant for men as well.


2. Posted by Cathy on April 11, 2007 @ 17:24 | Permalink

Someone has to stay and lead...

This part has been haunting me since I read it earlier today. What a guilt trip it is. There can be any number of legitimate reasons for leaving a law firm - should women not do so in the face of these reasons for fear of letting down their sisters?

I think what really bothers me about this piece of advice is that it has absolutely nothing to do with empowerment. If anything it reads as further debilitation, putting a new burden on women to keep them from looking out for number one, so to speak, and seems to run counter to the spirit of the rest of the advice, which seems much more consistent with advancing that empowerment goal.


3. Posted by Jake on April 11, 2007 @ 21:23 | Permalink

These rules of the game, as phrased above, strike me as harshly utilitarian, and not at all directed at inculcating productivity on the part of the persons who must live and work by them.


4. Posted by William Henderson on April 11, 2007 @ 22:17 | Permalink

Christine,

This was a very illuminating post. As someone who studies the legal profession (and has a gender project in the pipeline), Jane Kirenzo Pigott's remarks, and your commentary on them, are really valuable for concept building.

Re the rule "Someone has to stay and lead..." that bothered Cathy, it might be worth clarifying if the "rule" was delivered with some moralizing purpose in mind. If not enough women stay, change that is beneficial to women is unlikely. It could be construed as realism.

But I think I agree with Cathy's underlying sentiment about empowerment. As a white male, I have no one heaping obligations on me because of my gender or race. Therefore, my self-interested choices are subject to less scrutiny and judgment by others. That autonomy and freedom of action is a great asset for me. bh.


5. Posted by AM on April 12, 2007 @ 10:30 | Permalink

The question is whether these rules work for women who do not go to big firms (which statistically will be most female graduates coming out of Illinois).

For instance, doing document review, you do not have the luxury of an office in which to cry...or the freedom to just run to the bathroom.

What about the rules for working for legal aid? Or other mission based legal work. Do you think it is easier for women to take themselves seriously when they are working towards a higher purpose (such as eradication of poverty, free speech rights, or environmental law reform)?

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