No law firm or corporation would ever acknowledge discrimination against women. Quite the opposite: Most go out of their way to present themselves as fostering woman friendly environments, providing flexible time schedules, generous maternity leaves – We've even seen global leaders like Apple offering to help female employees pay to freeze their eggs.
But even so, how can we explain why a significant number of women quit the Paris bar within the first 10 years of practice? Or that according to the American Bar Association, "Women are underrepresented in lead counsel positions and in the role of trial attorney for all but a few types of cases"? Even after decades of talk about women's rights, how is it possible that there are so few women who are general counsel or partners at law firms?
Despite the advances in these areas – and make no mistake, there have been some -- it remains clear that it is still acceptable in many firms to take a different attitude toward female colleagues. Obstacles can indeed be put in their careers paths, especially when it comes to the issue of maternity, because in most cases few people will ever acknowledge them.
Too often, a firm will find a way to remove a female lawyer from a case, or steer cases away from her, after she announces the happy news that a baby is on the way. Many firms will refuse an extension of proceedings because an opposing lawyer is pregnant. Promotions in many firms are still determined during lunches or other informal gatherings of a few (mostly male) partners. And how many women could tell of losing client relationships to male colleagues during a maternity leave? Once lost, fighting to get a client back is never an attractive option.
In past years, I've noted how Intellectual Property law can be an ideal area of practice for women to seize new opportunities. But there is also a need for more fairness of the sexes within law firms. Even better, the firms that make concrete commitments to ensuring female colleagues a fair shot should be able to broadcast this advantage to clients concerned about such issues – which is increasingly the case.
Maybe what law firms need is something familiar to I.P. specialists: a certified seal of equality offered by trademark certifications. There are myriad certifications in the corporate world, for efficiency, best practices, or any of the various ISO standards – why not an independently approved guarantee that a firm strives to give every employee, and women in particular, the same opportunities?
To be credible, such certification would be performed by an independent organization, possibly even a government agency along the lines of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. External reviewers would give partners and associates the ability to signal potential problems, and react accordingly. After all, if some of a firm's managing partners consider it a perk to invite a few star performers to a strip club (an exaggeration for most firms, but not all), who else would a female colleague complain to?
Another possibility is to press the many legal reviews and publications that rank firms to integrate in their evaluations proof that 21st-centure standards of fairness toward female colleagues are being applied. After all, they understand the dynamics of law firms and the pressures on lawyers, as well as the expectations of a broad range of clients. And they would be the best placed to discern any distance between a firm's easy claim of being an equal opportunity employer, and the reality experienced by the clients who have worked with it.
If a firm wanted to obtain such certification – and which ones wouldn't? – it would have to demonstrate appropriate decisions and behaviour with colleagues and clients, and opponents as well. Yes, the legal profession is not a charitable field, but that doesn't mean there are no limits. Agreed-upon standards could specify how the return from maternity leave is addressed, and how a firm or even a corporation ensures non-discriminatory decisions toward both inside and outside counsel. Such changes should not be too difficult to implement, and they would very likely give a firm a competitive edge. It all depends on how badly both lawyers and clients want them.