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International Bar Association Studies Barriers To Equality For Women Lawyers

The New York City Bar Association recently hosted an event on “The Path to Gender Equality in the Legal Profession.” The event focused on a study undertaken by the international Bar Association (“IBA”) of practicing lawyers around the world, identifying barriers to women in commercial legal practice achieving senior positions and positions of authority in their law firms.

The report surveyed thousands of lawyers internationally to understand any boundaries they face within their firms. The International Bar Association had some interesting findings:

  • IBA found that 50% of women and 30% of men had been subject to bullying and intimidating conduct during their careers. The IBA suggested that this should be taken very seriously by law firms, and that bullying should be addressed by firms if found to be part of their culture.

  • Diversity policies and committees within law firms have not been taken seriously, largely because they are designed to help women and others fit into the current structure of big firms, while the IBA suggests that big firms should be trying to change structures to remove systemic boundaries for women.

  • Although law firms often develop flexible working arrangements, those arrangements are ultimately implemented by people in firms who do not have positions of authority, such as human resources staff. IBA suggests that these policies be “owned” by senior management and reviewed to see if they are working. Further, flexible work arrangements should not be used to further erode separation between work and life for workers.

  • IBA recognized that lawyers really need mentorship from senior partners to succeed, and that mentorship should be through official programs at the firm.

These findings appear especially relevant as Morrison & Foerster becomes the latest law firm to be sued for discrimination by its own female lawyers. Morrison & Foerster has been sued for $100 million by associates who claim that “the mommy track is a dead end.” Although the firm has work-life programs, such as the ones discussed in IBA’s study, the plaintiffs claim that when they take advantage of such programs, they are held back and set up to fail.

Clearly these issues are very current, and it will be interesting to stay abreast of how issues of women’s equality in the legal workplace develop in research and in the courts.