I once asked a senior woman lawyer how she was adjusting to working in a small boutique firm after spending most of her career at a large national law firm. She laughed and said the difference wasn’t the number of lawyers but the fact that her new firm had all female partners and mostly female associates. I asked her what difference that made. She summed it up in a way that I immediately understood. She said, “It’s like practicing with my girlfriends.”
Most women (at least those who value having women friends) will understand immediately what that means. Relationships, and especially close friendships, are vital to many women’s well being. It is what sustains many women through tough or challenging times. Women talk out their stress. They are not usually looking for advice as some men may assume. The simple working through a problem aloud and processing not just the issue but also the emotions that surround the issue, can release the stress entirely for many women.
For men, this can be counter-intuitive. Men often find talking about something stressful adds to their stress, it doesn’t lessen it. It is the reason many husbands do not want to talk about their hectic day when they come home but women do. Men deal with stress by forgetting about it or distracting themselves by doing something else, like watching the hockey game on TV.
Men, typically never talk about what is weighing them down or what struggles they are having except to make light of it and show that they are handling any challenges in a competent and admirable way. Boys learn early never to admit that they need help or they may appear vulnerable in the eyes of even a close male friend and lose that friend’s respect. This toughness is an obvious strength but it can also at times be lonely.
For women, strength and toughness is often built through strong, supportive friendships. Women, when they share their struggles with a female colleague or friend are not usually viewed as weak or incompetent for admitting to needing help. In fact, one of the most important ways that women develop the resiliency and energy to get through their challenging days is to have strong female friendships.
This is why regular gatherings outside the office of women partners and associates can help many women develop the emotional resiliency and toughness necessary to practice law. These social gatherings can provide women a safe and understanding place to work through issues often faced uniquely by women and gain the advice and support needed to be strong at the office. Men sometimes regard women getting together as frivolous socializing without appreciating the resiliency it is building for the firm.
Women lawyers will often look to mentoring as another way to develop more supportive relationships in the office. However, as one woman partner who was advised to spend less time mentoring as it was only billable hours that counted at the end of the day, said “It’s the mentoring that adds to my enjoyment of practicing law and coming to work each day. If I have to limit or stop mentoring, I will feel even more isolated here.”
When women work in law firms that are primarily male (and if the female partners are unfriendly towards other women), this lack of supportive women friends can be draining. It can also be challenging when the prevailing workplace code amongst the male (and sometimes the female) partners is never admit you need help or are having any difficulties with managing your practice. Such an admission may mean to some partners that you lack the mental or emotional toughness to be a lawyer.
It is obviously important with clients not just to be, but appear to be, strong and tough enough to handle the problems the client is bringing to their lawyer to solve. No client wants a weak or nervous lawyer. But in private, many women find the strength to represent those clients competently and courageously in the support they receive from other colleagues in their firm or legal department.
If the firm is one where the lawyers go into their offices and shut the door all day, resenting any interruptions and have no interest in hearing about your problems as they have enough of their own, this can be a very cold, emotionally draining and unsustainable environment for some lawyers.
Many men (and some women) do not look to their workplaces for friendship or personal support – collegiality and respect definitely but not personal friendships. In fact, for some lawyers, it is expected to be the reverse. Workplaces are where lawyers should at all times demonstrate their invincibility and warrior skills not just with clients but also with their colleagues in arms.
It is often thought that women leave law firms primarily because of the demands of managing work, family and domestic responsibilities. But often it is because women feel isolated, lonely and lack the support of a work environment that says it is all right to ask for help or admit that you are having a bad day.
Wearing a mask of invincibility with colleagues can be exhausting for women and for some men. Women need to create supportive networks to build resiliency either within their workplaces or outside it. For many women lawyers, this can be the most important factor in determining whether they stay or leave the practice of law.