THE BLOG

Johnny Paycheck Had It Right...

06/05/2015 10:21 am ET | Updated Jun 05, 2016

I have some advice for the female lawyers who said in an American Lawyer study on workplace inequality that they are often treated like assistants at work: quit your jobs.

I say that as someone whose legal career spans almost four decades in which I and many others have fought for greater opportunities and representation for women at every level. And I've learned this: if women don't expect to be and insist on being treated as the professionals we are, we certainly won't be.

Although women have made substantial progress in law, business, and other professional service fields, statistics noting the low percentages of women at the top of the legal profession or in the C-suite show that we still have a long way to go.

When I graduated from law school in 1976, I wanted to be a trial lawyer. I went to work for a firm then known as Fulbright & Jaworski because at the time it was the only major law firm in Texas that would permit me, a woman, to try cases. Clients sometimes called our partners to tell them they didn't want a "girl" trying their lawsuits. I was fortunate that some of the enlightened men at my firm would tell those clients that we had only one kind of lawyer -- a Fulbright & Jaworski lawyer.

At the time, there was a fundamental question about whether women were as capable as men. That's no longer the case. Women in law and business and many other professions have proven our ability to get the job done as well as or better than our male counterparts. Yet the number of women at the top, trying the biggest lawsuits, leading the biggest companies or serving on their boards, is still far too small.

The reasons are varied and complex. Sometimes women don't have the same opportunities, and sometimes that's the result of subtle discrimination or unconscious bias. At key points in our careers, men and women alike do a cost-benefit analysis: is this job worth it? Are the hours I'm working, the family time I'm missing, the personal down-time I'm sacrificing leading to something that makes it all worthwhile?

Depending on their situations, women may wrestle more with these questions because the answer often depends on whether they believe they have opportunities to advance. A firm whose partners assign the best and most challenging projects to male associates and gives low-level administrative tasks to highly qualified women will cause a woman to conclude that her sacrifices are not worth it. Women who are determined to progress in their careers must be proactive to make that happen. And they must work in an environment that supports those efforts.

Our firm has made a global commitment to advance women by setting a target of 30 percent female equity partners and 30 percent women in leadership positions by the year 2020. While our firm is currently 6 percent ahead of the industry average of women equity partners, at 23 percent, this target represents a significant and aspirational goal.

Networking and anti-bias training sessions haven't failed; they are tactics within broader strategies that critically require metrics to make a difference. What gets measured gets done. Companies can promote gender diversity by offering a career-strategies program that provides opportunities for and supports women on their way to senior positions, and providing inclusive leadership training and education. It's also important to incorporate strategies that encourage partners to provide business and professional opportunities to women partners and associates. These promoted changes foster critical collaboration, cross-selling, and collegiality.

Many firms are working to provide greater opportunity and equality for women lawyers. Yet in the end, each of us has to take charge of her own destiny. So if you're stuck permanently scheduling meetings, keeping the calendar and taking notes, and you have no prospects for advancement, make your career goals known and ask for a change. If that doesn't work, move where you can achieve your potential. You may have to leave your comfort zone and work harder, but in the end, working to build your own client base and expertise gives you autonomy, power, and value -- and you can bet you'll never be treated like an assistant.

Linda Addison is Managing Partner of Norton Rose Fulbright US and a Founder and Immediate Past President of the Center for Women in Law.