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Practicing Law Like a Man or a Woman?

One of the biggest “aha” moments of my life happened in a self-development course in my mid-30′s when I realized that I didn’t have to practice law like a man in order to be successful. I could be feminine and still be taken seriously. This realization was enormously liberating, as I was able to relax in my own skin and stop trying to be someone I wasn’t. I discovered that a more collaborative and “softer” approach in negotiations or when dealing with opposing counsel was more successful for me than the aggressive male style I had been trying to emulate. A friend once told me about a similar experience after “coming out” as a gay man. When he was able to stop pretending to be “straight” he had so much more energy to be successful in his career.

Recently I had another “aha” moment almost as significant as the first one. I was attending an executive coaching conference in Santa Barbara and heard Barbara Annis, one of the co-authors of “Leadership and the Sexes” (www.baainc.com) speak about the differences in the male and female brains. Recent neurological studies of brain scans have shown how differently men and women process information, make decisions, negotiate, handle emotion, and communicate – in fact everything the brain does. The genders are equally intelligent – just intelligent in different ways.

Annis’ book gives many examples of how differently men and women interpret the world around them. For example:

  • Women tend to use more words during the day especially when reading and writing are included. Men often process fewer words than women and may zone out if discussions become too lengthy or wordy. This may seem like the man is not interested or doesn’t care. He may also be frustrated that the woman is not getting to the point fast enough.
  • Women’s brains are wired to cross-connect information from both hemispheres and are more likely to move from what appears to be one topic to another that seems unrelated. They are actually “connecting the dots” that may need to be connected during a project and seeing opportunities or pitfalls that should be noticed.
  • The links between the emotional centres of the brain are linked differently for women to their thought processing and communication centres. Thus a man might need many hours to process a major emotion-laden experience, whereas a woman may be able to process it quite quickly. This often creates a lot of tension between women and men. 

These examples show that the more we understand how differently men and women process information and emotions, the better we can create law firms where the strengths of each gender are appreciated and not discounted.

Annis point out that many of us have what she calls “bridge brains” – brains that have the characteristics of both genders. I recommend trying the BBC on-line survey (“What sex is your brain?) at www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/sex/add_user.shtml).

I often hear from women lawyers who work in firms where there are more male lawyers than female, that they find the work environment to be uncomfortably male. Since many law firms and corporations were started by men and are largely populated by male lawyers this is not surprising. This male environment is often taken to be the norm and thought to be gender neutral.

Just as I did as a young lawyer starting out, many women feel they must adapt their personalities to fit this male environment in order to succeed. Until I read “Leadership and the Sexes” I had difficulty understanding what made a work environment male as opposed to gender neutral. I now see that if our brains process our experiences very differently we will have different expectations of each other. The strengths that women lawyers bring can easily be discounted by male (and sometimes female) partners who think there is only one way of approaching or solving a problem.

Similarly, men and women socialize differently. I often hear women lawyers complain about the lack of collegiality in their offices – that their male colleagues will arrive in the morning, go straight to their offices, close the door with barely a “good morning” or any attempt to make personal contact with their colleagues. The women find this to be cold and unfriendly while the men see morning chatter as unnecessary and even distracting. Reading how differently our brains are wired around social interaction, the differences in behavior are now more understandable.

Recently I was chairing a meeting of the BC Women Lawyers Forum where there were about 60 women lawyers in the room and only one man. I was thinking about the many times when I started out in the law where I was the only woman at large legal gatherings of men but how unusual this was for this sole male lawyer.

When you are in that situation, you know instantly that you are in a gathering where the behavior and the rules are different. You watch carefully to make sure that you are not offending anyone by what you say and you adapt your behavior so that the people in the room take you seriously. While we know through experiences like this that the genders behave differently, the assumption has been that it is because our family and society has socialized us differently. The new research on brain science shows that we are actually hard-wired differently and bring different and complimentary skills to each situation.

A lot has been written about how differently men and women communicate but “Leadership and the Sexes” shows how much deeper these differences go. If we can build more gender intelligent workplaces where we understand and appreciate what both men and women bring to the practice of law, we will not only serve our clients better but also create working environments where women, especially feel comfortable in being who they really are. 

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Comments

  1. Chrissie Lightfoot

    Hi Linda

    Your post is highly informative and entertaining. I can relate and empathise with you and no doubt many women lawyers across the globe will do also.

    My ‘eureka’ moment actually happened before entering the law so I was prepared for the ‘stand by your inner woman in a man’s world’ experience.

    There is no substitute for being oneself… no matter what.

    Thank you for sharing your experience, truly appreciated and I shall share it with many colleagues – male and female I hasten to add!

    Warmest regards

  2. Gary Johnston-Webber

    Hi Linda

    Thank you for this article which I found extremely interesting and I could not agree with you more.

    Although not a qualified lawyer I have spent the last 40 years in related fields including procurement and negotiations and drafting large very high value complex contracts.

    I have been involved with many lawyers over the years and must say that I actually prefer to deal with the female lawyers more than the men as they seem to grasp things quickly and also I very much agree that a gentler approach actually brings more positive results.

    The point that I have expressed strongly before is that in many cases the typical lawyer (if there is such a thing) are highly academically qualified and as such some times do not relate well to the practical world of the technical side of projects and hence I have found that where lawyers do their very best to accommodate the client they are not briefed properly as the client does not understand any of the legal nuances and nor the concepts of the law.

    I personally have grown over many years to learn and understand the law and commerce, finance and the technological side of projects and hence have an edge on other procurement people being able to converse with the lawyers in a far better and understand manner and to be able to explain the brief well. In my experience there are a a few lawyers, both male and female, that have come from an engineering background so that helps but those are few.

    I also have experienced that briefing a female lawyer is sometimes really a lot easier than males as the male tend to think they know a lot about the technical things when they actually do not.

    Men by nature do the sort of technical things around their homes and DIY and so forth and so have that knowledge of these sorts of things, however, when it comes to major plant and projects and all the technology that surrounds these complex projects they tend to be a bit stubborn and also, as you say, zone out when the technical aspects need to be explained and understood.

    The ladies however really do listen and connect the dots so much more easily and are not scared to ask questions and this communication level develops a greater understanding of the case at hand.

    I also have found, that in general, in business men tend to want hard and fast legal facts or opinions that are black and white – sort of \just tell me where I stand in a few words\ – these men do not understand the technical points of the law and how the legal system operates and I have found that very difficult to do with my bosses of old, as nothing is quite as cut and dry as that and one needs to know all the surrounding circumstances, which I am sure you have experienced.

    So in short give me the lady lawyers anytime and we will created the correct, simple and clear contract documents, as you can get under the various circumstances.

    Please note that I am in no way being patronising in my comments towards the female lawyers, I just like their ways of handling matters.

    I was fascinated to read the research you pointed out in your article as it makes so much sense to me now.

    Thank you again for your article.

    Best regards

    Gary
    gjw.consulting@vodamail.co.za

  3. ChristineBrownQuinn

    This is a refreshing perspective on the differences between males and females. It’s not about “complaining” about the differences or making one gender behave like the other. As the articles suggests it’s about understanding those differences and capitalising on them!