A Full and Equal Voice

Why is it still so common to see a panel predominantly made up of middle-aged white male lawyers on the dais at a legal conference or CPD session? I noted this again at a legal conference I attended last week. Of course, there were exceptions – the panel of women in corporate counsel positions and the Aboriginal law panel, for example – but shouldn’t a gender balanced, diverse panel of speakers now be the rule, rather than the exception?

These questions have been roiling about my mind since last fall, when I read the numerous, thoughtful comments to my Slaw post, Where are all the women in the future of law? In that post, I wondered aloud why I was hearing and seeing so few women engaged in the ongoing conversations about what the future of legal practice will look like. The response was quick and often pointed. For example, Alison Monahan commented that:

I think there are plenty of women speaking up, they’re just not being recognized by the powers that be. When the usual suspects throw conferences on the “future of law,” and 90%+ of the speakers are male, that’s inexcusable.

Lesley Midzain picked up on Monahan’s comment and proposed:

…perhaps it’s not about joining those conversations, but starting some of our own.

And Betsy Munnell responded:

I agree that women in practice and beyond need to express themselves as loudly as career survival permits. However, Lesley and Alison make crucial points with which I whole-heartedly agree. Every future-law organization committed to change loses credibility, and should forfeit our support, if it fails to assure a full and equal voice to women in the profession.

Threaded through many of the comments to that post is the perception that women lawyers remain excluded from public discussions on the future of legal practice, whether taking place online or in conference settings.

Sometime shortly afterward, I had a thought-provoking conversation with a male lawyer, well known on legal speaking circuits, following up on these comments. We spoke about how he, as an in-demand speaker, and others like him, might better support the selection of more diverse, gender-balanced speaker panels, both at the events he is invited to and more generally. We tossed around a broad range of possibilities, considering everything from encouragement and mentorship of potential speakers to developing a “speakers bureau” for CPD event planners draw upon, to making diversity and gender balance on the dais a condition of acceptance of invitations. At the end of our conversation, it was clear no one solution would effect the change we both agreed was necessary.

Last week, I came across Sarah Milstein’s HBR Blog post, Putting an end to conferences dominated by white men. Milstein provides a number of suggestions to increase the representation of people of diverse backgrounds and women on conference agendas. She suggests that in selecting speakers, planners tend to rely too heavily upon their own networks, and that this typically contributes to a bias in favour of those who are already over-represented. Her proposed solutions to address the bias are multi-faceted, concrete and should not be hard to implement, but doing so will require that an intentional and coordinated effort be made.

Milstein notes that in applying the suggested techniques to speaker selection in conferences she has organized, the results have been positive. She suggests, too, that making the changes has resulted in boosted attendance:

Since 2012, I’ve co-hosted The Lean Startup Conference with Eric Ries. Eric ran the event with another host for two years before that, and the speakers they drew, though good presenters, were almost all white men. When I began co-hosting, we put an emphasis on finding high-quality speakers who better represented the business world. In 2012 and 2013, not only did our speaker rosters comprise more than 50% women and people of color, but the number of conference attendees doubled each year.

While Milstein is not speaking specifically to the legal profession, she notes that these solutions apply “…to almost any gated decision with a pipeline of applicants, including hiring, venture capital funding, school admissions, and awards.”

It seems to me that for most in the legal profession, the rationale for promoting diversity and gender balance is by now accepted; but we struggle, still, with turning what we know into what we do. Unless we turn our knowledge into action, over and over again, the full and equal voice of women and persons of diverse backgrounds in our profession will remain unheard.

Milstein has drawn us a helpful map. This seems like a good place to start.


  1. I have organized CLE sessions for the Section of Business Law of the ABA over the years. The planning requires demonstrating the diversity -gender, race, nationality – of the panel, and it is very hard to get a panel approved that does not have diverse elements. (I don’t know if it’s possible; the three panels I have organized in the past decade have all met the criteria.)

    I don’t find that system objectionable at all, and it does ensure that organizers look around, if their usual networks are more homogeneous than the policy wants the panels to be.

    This is in a context where there are few individual speakers. I presume that the folks responsible for engaging individual speakers (keynoters for lunches, for example) are working from the same playbook.

    I was recently on a panel in Toronto of five people, all ‘white men with gray hair’ (except for the bald guy). It was a knowledgeable group but a bit embarrassing for its uniformity – even if over half the audience had not been women. The organizer admitted it, at least. I suppose if the occasional panel is all women, it balances out a bit. (Getting racial diversity is probably harder.)

    Another reason it would be good to get more people involved is that these occasions tend to ask for a good deal of work for free. If there are only a small handful of women or people of colour recognized as good presenters, they will get overworked and feel burned out, and probably exploited.

    Governments have this problem in setting up policy consultations, at times. We always come back to the same organizations for particular points of view, and the less-well-funded groups have a hard time sustaining the effort, though with no lack of will. Governments’ ability to offer appropriate funding to enable the people to participate can be limited. Having broader networks would be helpful here, too.

  2. Ah, you’ve hit a nerve with me.

    This is certainly not limited to law conferences. One (non-law) conference I attend frequently has had difficulties attracting women to speak. Over time they tried inviting numerous women, but the reasons for not accepting the invitation to speak are almost as numerous:
    – too busy
    – time conflicts with other speaking engagements
    – male counterpart at the same organization would be better suited to speak
    – didn’t think she had enough to say
    – didn’t think she was a good enough speaker

    The organizers reached out to a group of women to help widen their networks. Still, the same issue persisted.

    Why was this happening? It makes me wonder if men are, for some reason, willing to put themselves out there more than women are. Is it a matter of confidence? Support from colleagues? And how can we become better speakers if we don’t get up and speak? I agree the few women who are willing to speak may be over-booked. How do we get more on the roster?

    I have pushed myself to be a speaker step-by-step. It has not been easy. I am not a natural at it, but like to think I have improved with time. I would love to encourage others to do the same and would love suggestions on how to do this.

  3. I came across this call for speakers for a conference Sarah Milstein is currently organizing. It perfectly exemplifies her points about being transparent and clear in seeking out diverse speakers: https://www.formstack.com/forms/?1668876-T2sebOurHH

  4. Karen very kindly anonymized me in her post :-), but I was the lawyer with whom she had the conversation about women panelists at law conferences (and especially legal future/technology events). I would love to see more women at these podiums and on these panels. When I’m engaged as a speaker at legal conferences, I encourage the organizers to make their presenters as diverse as possible (including, but not limited to, gender); all are willing, and I think most do their best.

    But we could go further on this. I would be willing to personally reach out to many of the other men who speak at these events and ask them to make panel diversity (or at the least, genuine best efforts to achieve it) an explicit condition of our appearances. I’m sure I would get widespread if not unanimous agreement to adopt this approach. The difficulty arises when the event organizers ask me what women and diverse speakers they should invite to address changes in the legal market, and I can’t help them as much as I’d like.

    It’s not because the speakers don’t exist. There’s a familiar group of outstanding women thinkers and speakers whom I repeatedly recommend; but these folks have jobs of their own and can’t spend all their time on the presentation circuit. What we need is a larger pool of women to suggest for legal panellist and keynote positions. This is what brought Karen and me to the idea of a “speakers’ bureau,” or at least a website with the names, bios, previous engagements, and specialty subject areas of women speakers.

    If there was an independent, respected organization — I’ll pick the CBA Women’s Forum as a random example — that would create, maintain, and grow this website, I and other male speakers could confidently point event organizers to that resource and say, “We’d like you to invite some people on this list.” If we give conference planners an ultimatum, we also need to give them a way to meet that ultimatum. A resource like that would go a long way towards making that possible.

    So, there’s the idea and the opportunity. Is it sensible? Is it practical? And if so, who wants to run with it?

  5. A speakers bureau is a great idea. Slaw would be willing to help in any way it could.

  6. I like the idea of a speaker’s bureau. The next step, I suspect, will be encouraging people to have their names added. But one step at a time…

  7. As Co-Chair of the CBA Women Lawyers Forum I find Karen’s post and the comments following it most interesting. The WLF will definitely have to look into how we might contribute to a speakers’ bureau. Great idea!

  8. It’s interesting to read this, and I’ve seen many comments along these lines with respect to the upcoming Reinvent Law conference in NYC next week. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and have decided to come clean in the hopes that it helps to drive at some solutions.

    I was asked to speak at Reinvent Law – one of only maybe 7 women out of 40 or so speakers. It’s an honor, right? Well, when I was first asked to speak, my initial reaction surprised me — it actually crossed my mind to pass the opportunity to a colleague. I’m not proud of that, but there it is. For about 10 minutes, thoughts about how I have not earned enough stripes as the other speakers entered my brain (I mean, Richard Susskind and Nicole Bradick are rarely uttered in the same sentence). I’m only 33, I have only been involved in the legal innovation world for only a handful of years, and heck, I’m pregnant to boot (not that that is particularly relevant, but it felt that way for a fleeting moment). I allowed myself to believe, momentarily, that I am not worthy of the platform. It’s true, I would not call myself a wild intellectual and no one would accuse me of being a “thought leader” — I’m of the “doer” variety. I get things done, I hustle, I’m good with people, and that is my particular brand of intelligence. When thinking more clearly, I have enough self-awareness to know that these are my strengths and have gotten me where I am.

    Fortunately, the moment of doubt passed quickly and I gladly accepted, but I couldn’t help wonder how often this happens. How often the conference organizers really do try to recruit women but find that women decline or perhaps don’t perform well — not due to a lack of things to say or smarts, but because of self-imposed insecurities and/or performance anxiety. Perhaps if a speaker’s bureau is organized in Canada, some affirmative outreach to young women and a focus on mentoring/sponsoring young women in the legal entrepreneurial arena (who often have no mentors) might be of help. I’ll be interested in seeing where this goes in Canada and stand at the ready to implement in the US.

  9. Last April, somehow Alison Monahan and Lee Burgess managed to put on a future of law conference (Catapult 2013) that had a majority of women panelists throughout the day. They also managed to have a more racially diverse group of panelists than, say, Reinvent Law’s 1 person of color out of 42 speakers. It was a great and invigorating conference, with lots of different perspectives, and perhaps one of the more collegial professional conferences I’ve ever attended. They seem to be on track to do the same again this year.

    So it’s not magic (although it feels a little magic when you’re in a room that is representative of the real world).

    But I also want to link this up to future of law’s other huge blind spots: solos, small firms, and legal services/legal aid. This is where innovation in the delivery of legal services has the potential to create the biggest differences both for lawyers and for the industry, solving that trick of matching affordable legal services with all those unmet legal needs. And a significant percentage of the practitioners in those practice settings, and of the scholars focused on those meat-and-potato fields, are women and people of color.

    If future of law were more capacious in its scope, a different group of people would come to mind as panelists.