Leading like Lionesses: Why Women Belong on Law Firm Executive Committees

The Lioness Way

About a year before I left BIGLAW, I argued a case before Chief Judge Mary Briscoe of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.  Two male judges, one of whom was on senior status at over 90 years old, joined her on the panel.   As the panel entered the courtroom, Chief Judge Briscoe gently assisted her barely ambulatory colleague to his seat before taking her own; the other judge simply sat down.  While I should have been charting out a brilliant, precise rebuttal to the government’s appellate argument, I got stuck: “here is the Chief Judge of the Tenth Circuit, and even she falls into the feminine role of caregiver.” I wondered whether women at the top ever escaped the yoke of our gender—namely, the constellation of nurturing/caregiving traits that “normal” women are supposed to exemplify, even in the highly cut-throat worlds of BIGLAW and business.   

That weekend, my daughters and I visited Gala, a young lioness we had adopted at Colorado’s Wild Animal Sanctuary, www.wildanimalsancturary.com. Years earlier, I had represented the Wild Animal Sanctuary in a defamation action that I dubbed “Big Cat Fight,” during which I became a huge fan of its founder, Pat Craig.  Perhaps because his own survival depends on it, Pat is an expert in Big Cat behavior, and at that visit, he took time out to explain the “Lioness Way.” 

Although males may look like kings with their regal manes, lionesses really run the pride.  They raise the young, they hunt and provide for the entire community, they pick where to live and rest, and they decide who stays in their community.  Males, by contrast, hang out to mate, letting lionesses do their hunting for them: although lionesses drag the bounty back to the pride, any nearby male will demand to eat first.  The lioness then lets the young feed; she eats last from her own kill.  To her, the survival of the pride comes before her own short-term needs. 

And then it struck me, women are lionesses, particularly at BIGLAW.  Memories of dragging the “bounty” back to the BIGLAW pride, only to have the males demand to eat first by claiming origination or “relationship” credit, flooded my consciousness.  At my last BIGLAW gig, for example, I let an executive committee member accompany me on a visit to an insurance carrier I’d proudly served for years; upon our return, he claimed origination credit and then cut me out of any further marketing to this carrier.  At one large national LawFrat, I later learned that the male non-equity partners regularly conspired at a nearby Breastuarant about how to divide up my book after I quit the firm in increasingly apparent frustration.  The worst example, however, occurred while I was on maternity leave at another large national LawFrat: my regional managing partner and his buddy in the Long Island office abruptly advised me over the phone that a new client number would be assigned to one of my clients, giving full origination credit to Long Island Frat Guy.  The client, they lied, wanted it that way, and if I had any hope of advancing up the partnership rungs, being a “team player” really matters. 

But even beyond my own BIGLAW bitterness about keeping my “kill,” I started to notice amazing Lionesses in business around me.  Colleen Abdoulah, CEO and Chairwoman of WOW! Internet, Cable and Phone, has nurtured a pride 3,700 strong where everyone matters. “There’s a correlation between how your end customers feel and your employees feel about the company,” she observed.  And so, she reorganized WOW! on the belief that everyone, from the lowest paid worker to C-level executives surrounding her, has a voice in improving WOW! for its customers.  To make sure those C-level executives never forget what makes WOW! work, they spend one day each quarter riding along on service/installation appointments or fielding customer calls; in fact, one installer once teased her “What’s taking so long?” when he sent her to fetch a ladder.  And her approach works. While competitors showed flat growth, WOW! actually added subscribers, growing to the ninth largest cable operator in the nation.  http://www.bizjournals.com/denver/print-edition/2012/10/19/colleen-abdoulah-sees-wow-as.html?page=all

And then Jenny Holman, my banker at Bank of the West, came to mind.  She nurtures her team of tellers, loan officers, and bankers to deliver the best customer service I’ve ever experienced . . . anywhere.  She eats at her desk to cover for her team’s lunch breaks; she praises loudly, blames softly; she covers the phone after four rings to support her busy team; she requires everyone to learn every customer’s name (I’m not kidding); and she boasts low employee turnover.  Her team seems happy, and it shines through in the form of exquisite customer service.

As I looked around more, I started to realize that what I once considered the “yoke of our gender” relegating Chief Judge Mary Briscoe to an expected caregiver role was actually a GIFT, an asset that women bring to leadership.  Lionesses understand that nurturing the pride ensures its success.  They know that if they strengthen and invest in their community, the community will perform.  And then I got it:  like Abdoulah of WOW! and Bank of the West’s Holman, Chief Judge Briscoe escorted her elderly colleague to his seat in her role as Chief Nurturer, Protector, and Resource-Allocator, the Lioness traits that enhance, if not define, her leadership.  To Lionesses, therefore, leadership means responsibility, not power. 

The Male Model

The Lioness Way stands in sharp contrast to the current male model at most law firms.  And, despite the incredible gifts women bring to leadership, they comprise only about 23% of law firm equity partners (i.e., the only path from partnership to true “peership”) and less than 18% of firm Executive or Compensation committee members.  One possible reason that Lionesses never reach the equity or executive ranks is that they have such difficulty protecting their bounty from the firm’s males.   And it shows.  Like male lions on the savannah, the male model of firm leadership is inherently predatory, opportunistic, and focused on short-term gratification, not long-term survival.

BIGLAW Executive Committee members still largely consist of white males in their late 50’s to mid-60’s, many of whom are literally running out the clock to a retirement for which they are likely financially ill-prepared.  And, although they now unflinchingly characterize their firms as BUSINESSES (as opposed to the “learned profession” LAW once fancied itself), BIGLAW executive committee members impenitently lack education/experience in management or leadership, particularly how to motivate and manage PEOPLE

As I learned the hard way, asking an aging executive committee Frat Guy to describe his leadership philosophy apparently causes offense.  “My job,” he explained (paraphrased), “is to maximize profits per partner, which means that every office is productive,” clarifying that “productive” means “billing.”  He then seized the opportunity to tell me that I could be billing more, even though he admittedly knew nothing about my clients or workload.  In fact, he acknowledged, he has not actually practiced law since 1999 when he “ascended” to the firm’s management committee.  I barely suppressed my disgust: as a working mom of two young daughters, I was literally killing myself to bill, bill, bill so that he can maintain two ex-wives and a home in France.  As I eventually figured out, my fellow Lionesses, males like him account for the substantial “legacy costs” that inhibit BIGLAW’s ability to operate profitably at reasonable rates; in fact, legacy costs like him squandered the profits from my own billed hours.   More about that later . . . 

The Future of BIGLAW Prides

If BIGLAW hopes to remain competitive with lean and green Law Firm 2.0’s and Mom Firms (which deliver higher quality at lower cost), its leadership, personnel and technological practices simply cannot lag so far behind the successful companies they seek to represent.  Granted, Law hardly champions any kind of innovation.  But even at a minimum, BIGLAW must embrace technology, which has substantially reduced the actual costs of practicing law (legacy costs notwithstanding). 

More importantly, BIGLAW must re-think traditional male model and welcome more Lionesses onto Executive Committees for the simple survival of the BIGLAW pride.  Whereas BIGLAW’s male leaders defend hierarchical structures that conceal their unproductivity, Lionesses like Colleen Abdoulah could nurture flatter organizations where “everyone has a say . . . and everyone is accountable.”  Whereas BIGLAW’s male leaders have invested less into attorney quality, training and retention because of shocking attrition among minorities and women, Lionesses like Jenny Holman could nurture a community of happy attorneys that stay and deliver.  And whereas BIGLAW’s male leaders tend to focus on one short-term metric of productivity (i.e., billable hours), Lionesses like Chief Judge Mary Briscoe could maximize each pride members’ potential contributions while elevating them above their weakness, physical or otherwise.

BIGLAW prides face tremendous future challenges. Given their over-discussed rate and billing abuses, BIGLAW prides have started to exhaust the resources that are necessary for their survival—namely, large institutional clients willing to defray the overblown infrastructural and legacy costs underlying high rates.  With new, effective legal species like Law Firm 2.0’s and Mom Firms on the landscape and in the food-chain, BIGLAW must reorganize itself around the Lioness Way, to nurture the pride from within and to chuck characteristically male short-term, opportunistic “fixes”—e.g., mergers, de-equitizations, layoffs, spin-offs and predatory growth.  Now more than ever, BIGLAW needs Lionesses far more than Lionesses need BIGLAW; paradoxically, BIGLAW’s survival depends on it. 


Posted by at December 27, 2012
Filed in category: Uncategorized,

One Response to Leading like Lionesses: Why Women Belong on Law Firm Executive Committees

  1. Dear Lioness,

    Equal in right, different in gifts. In my experience, man and women think and process information differently. In a global sense, men are often more linear thinkers and are good and quick at patter recognition and extrapolative prediction; women on the other hand are more interstitial in their thinking, they tend to catch nuance and assess complex relations and competing motivations more accurately. Women are often better at finding the Achilles heal, the witness who might say what the other side would prefer was unsaid.The skill set ven diagrams overlap but there are noticeable and potentially beneficial effects in collaborative associations, which would be less likely to be derived from male male or female female pairings.

    I remember well my first introduction to the Lioness approach to Big Law, 20 years ago in Philly. It was a elective course, I had come for the express purpose of studying the Lion King in his natural habitat.

    The thought of becoming one never entered my mind.I am a shepherd, while the sheep know their shepherd; the shepherd must know the predators.

    My observation of the Lioness was that the tactics differed but the result was the same. The Senior Lioness still took the pack leader share, regardless of who actually made the kill, and was no less demanding or inconsiderate than her male counterparts. On the other hand I have seen far better from boutique firms which were male or female dominated or mixed.

    I do not doubt that gender bias imposes a cost on Big Law, and that leaving Lionesses may well eat the Lion king’s lunch if the Big Law mentality does not change. But not all change is for the better, and sororities may have different problems than fraternities, but they have problems nonetheless.While the gender issue is a real problem, it is not the primary problem.

    It may be that gender is not the problem in the first place. “Eat what you kill” does not work in Big Law, the problem is as old as business itself. It is the dichotomy of perspective on the value of origination and production, and neither the rainmaker nor the drone will ever see eye to eye on that issue.

    I recall in college reading about the rat studies in which density of population was shown to directly correlate to antisocial behavior. Jack Kemp took that insight and dramatically improved public housing. Boutique firms are doing the same for law.

    I would counsel that an all female pride could be as flawed as a male dominated pack. In all things we need the best of each for the betterment of all, and we need balance which only comes when people of different gifts recognize complimentary interdependence. The hand cannot say unto the eye I have no need of thee.

    There are advantages and disadvantages in size. Some enjoy the security and perks of law as a business, I could not. The most successful model for disaffected refugees from Big Law has always been the safe haven of a mid-sized firm built around a core of three or four like-minded and differently skilled partners with able and diverse associates. You can have the law as a business, or as a profession, but not both.You cannot serve two masters.

    Oddly, if you choose profession, and find others who share your perspective, you can acquire the perks of the business model without the soul crushing burdens. Doing something you believe in well will attract all the cases you need and provide all the satisfaction, professional and financial you will need. It is always and only a matter of choice.

    I prefer a solo practice with strong ties to other attorneys with whom I regularly associate as co-counsel or consulting counsel.I answer only to my clients and my conscience. No partner questions when I take a hopeless cause or difficult client; nor is there anyone to fret over my paying to pro bono ratio and while my boss is a jerk who makes me work long hours, I do get the day off when I need it and the work obligations allow it.It too have trade offs, but they are ones I am willing to make.

    I do not think that the existence of frat practices is a problem, nor do I think there is much point in telling a duck to become a swan; once a duck has become a duck so it will remain. If you are a swan and are working with ducks, you would do well to leave and seek out fellow swans, and if you look I am confident that like every other species, they come in male and female varieties.

    Fish to water, birds to air, each has its preference and ignores it only at peril.

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