Mary Ellen Bellusci 2014-06-03 03:05:54
I don’t envy your position. You entered law school, fresh faced, ready to tackle a new opportunity and forge ahead. During your classes, statistics show that you worked side-by-side in equal numbers with young men on the same career path. You graduated, passed the bar and were cut loose into the legal world. Congratulations to you for landing a position at a firm and maybe even being savvy enough to have negotiated a starting salary equal to that of your male counterpart. Chances are you went from feeling like you could set the firm on fire with your success to realizing that there is an unspoken set of structural challenges in the legal profession. You probably thought to yourself, “This is 2014. Surely we are past the point of both subtle and overt discrimination of women. Surely my dedication, hard work, personality and ambition can overcome any old boys’ club mentality I may encounter.” As impossibly long hours and the high, often unrealistic expectations of a client-driven profession took their toll, maybe you questioned what you could do to advance to a higher position without sacrificing your own happiness, sanity and work/life balance. I don’t envy you walking into the scores of legal conferences each year and seeing a similar line-up of speakers dispense advice. I’ve sat in those conferences. I’ve marveled at the lack of diversity. We may have exchanged frustrated glances from across the room as we wondered how, in this day and age, there is such a dearth of women lawyers in management and leadership positions. I don’t envy you deciding to start a family and pausing for a moment to worry about the very real “mommy penalty” and the perception of a lack of commitment to your career by your colleagues. Your struggles with the legal industry’s move up or move out rules are legitimate. I applaud your willingness and ability to manage the long, arduous road to partnership, which can mean huge chunks of time away from your family. Similarly, I respect your difficult decision to give up that partnership track in order to raise a family. I feel for you when I think that your options for mentors and sponsors within your profession can often be much harder to come across than in other professions. I lament the fact that although women have provided much of the brain trust for law firms since the ‘80s, the number of female equity partners in the largest law firms has remained around 15 percent for the last 20 years. I think there is a light at the end of your tunnel, but from my perspective as a legal technology vendor, the light is dim and taking much longer to shine than in other professions. Please hold on to some hope. Law firms are wising up to the fact that the legal profession lags behind other fields in terms of female leaders. Statistics consistently show that companies with a more diverse management team outperform those with a homogenous group at the top, so it just makes good business sense to mix up the playing field. Firms are finally starting to embrace the idea of flexible and part-time work. Yes, this is a client-driven profession, but burning out top talent with impossible hours and standards is not the answer. Finally, I’d be remiss as a legal technology professional not to point out that technology can play a huge part in the firm’s culture. Well-run firms who are able to efficiently and consistently manage case workflow inevitably have happier employees who can operate on more equal footing. As an outsider, as a woman, and as someone who has been fortunate enough to advance in my career with the help of excellent mentors and sponsors, I cannot help but notice when other women are not afforded the same opportunities at advancement that I have enjoyed. So, while I don’t envy your struggle, I do believe that things are getting better and that the issue of diversity in law firms is officially on the table. I encourage you to help ensure it remains there. Mary Ellen Bellusci owes much of her successful career as vice president at the legal technology company, Needles, Inc., to the many excellent mentors who have championed her throughout the years. From the late Burton Bank, a true pioneer in the legal practice management world, to Bryan Billig, the most honest and fair “tech geek” business owner you will ever meet, she has been very fortunate to climb the ranks at Needles. Mary Ellen is privileged to meet incredibly smart and talented men and women in her travels to legal conferences. For more information about Needles, visit www.needles.com
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