It's Time to Talk About Gender Bias in the Legal Profession - CLOC Recap

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It's time to have conversations about gender bias...

Out of the gate on Sunday afternoon the 2018 CLOC Institute highlighted the key contributions and paths to corporate leadership of two general counsel - Janet McCarthy and Jennifer Warner

Connie Brenton, the Chief of Staff and Senior Director of Legal Operations at NetApp who facilitated the conversation, set the table with some facts that might shake up the perceptions of many law firm partners. Based on the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium's membership and research, 60% of the buyers of legal services are women. CLOC members control approximately $50 billion in legal spend and represent 30% of the Fortune 500. As these two women took the stage, the message was clear. It's time to have conversations about gender bias. Get over the fear of not knowing what to say and do your part.

Two Paths to Leadership

Janet McCarthy and Jennifer Warner had very different experiences in their path to leadership. Janet's various roles in private and public companies in the commodities, industrial and services sectors in London, New York, Tokyo, Zurich and Sydney all led to her current leadership position as the Global General Counsel for the Santa Fe Group.

Along the way she experienced one episode after another during negotiations where a male counterpart disparaged her contributions while her colleagues remained silent. After a particularly salient incident, Janet confronted one of her colleagues about not having her back. It was the start of more meaningful conversations around advocacy.

Jennifer Warner's experience earlier in life shaped her determination and drive to excel as a lawyer and leader in a corporate legal department. For Jennifer, her career path was marked by episodes of male leaders providing opportunities to make key transitions from one level of the organization to another, possibly because there were simply fewer women forerunners, culminating in her current position of Vice President of Legal at Columbia Sportswear Company.

In her various roles Jennifer learned to question her own assumptions about the person in front of her and have an internal dialogue to assess whether her decisions would be different without those assumptions. One outcome of this technique was the hiring of more mothers on her team. While some (male or female) might assume for various reasons that mothers might not be able to perform at the same level as others, it turns out that a mother's work ethic is unparalleled in addition to her capacity for adaptability and collaboration.

Authenticity and Empathy are Good for Business

As the session continued, both women highlighted some of the keys to their success, including the need for both authenticity and adaptability as leaders who model ethical behavior and pull levers, as all leaders do, to make a greater impact in their organizations. However, they also mentioned that sometimes women leaders may lack the platform within their organizations to push for greater change, citing an instance involving a gap in pay (plus some commentary on the stunning revelations of just how large that gap can be based on recent evidence from the UK).

In other cases their male colleagues were instrumental by simply standing up for a code of conduct that we should all aspire to. As more of these conversations occur, the more a firm's reputation for respectful interactions matters. Janet shared another example where one of her peers at another company decided to remove a firm from their selection process based on that firm's performance along gender lines in one of Janet's deals.

...gender bias is a business issue - not just a diversity issue

Likewise both Janet and Jennifer underscored the notion that gender bias is a business issue - not just a diversity issue. It's not carved out or sidelined; it is central to the selection of legal providers. Counsel are buying judgment and expect the same code of conduct and ethics from their providers. The theme of this segment revolved around appreciating a buyer's perspective.

If a business partner can't empathize with an in-house leader, don't expect to see additional work. Empathy is crucial to partners getting to know the business, which means the way someone in-house sees their own organization and their challenges to provide value up and across the chain. For both Janet and Jennifer, without empathy providers won't be able to bring quality solutions to business problems.

The CLOC is Ticking

Although the 2018 CLOC Institute is just getting started, it is indisputable that CLOC is serious about the value of having these conversations and modeling the contributions that women leaders are making in their organizations.

There are a number of other sessions which touch on gender bias from a variety of standpoints, including the one on Sunday afternoon by Cara Hale Alter, Decoding Gender Dynamics in Communication, and a panel on Tuesday, Driving Diversity & Inclusion Outcomes Through Legal Operations.

Plus, other presenters include diversity as a core component of conducting business and sourcing work. For instance, as the Senior Director of Legal Operations at Medtronic, Shelia Kennedy spoke about her department's participation in the Mansfield Rule, an initiative that certifies that organizations consider at least 30% women and minority candidates for significant leadership roles, within the discussion of how to create more value in law department - law firm collaborations.

I am proud to say that Husch Blackwell has also adopted the Mansfield Rule as a part of my firm's commitment to provide greater consideration to women and minority professionals and to recognize their contributions in various leadership roles.

In addition to the Institute's programming, CLOC models the contributions of women in the legal industry on the leadership stage.

Panels composed of men and women are often led by the female presenters on the platform. Plus the dialogue between panelists is respectful - without the kind of interruptions, identifiable by gender, often seen in other contexts. The message was clear: the time for waiting is over. If law firms are not serious about addressing explicit and implicit gender bias, corporate legal departments will shift work to those providers who demonstrate greater empathy and a willingness to have meaningful conversations at all levels of the organization.

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[Lann Wasson is Associate Director of Legal Project Management at law firm Husch Blackwell.]

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