Imagine: You wake up on a regular weekday, and rather than already feeling behind, you feel positive, even excited about the day ahead of you. Your first order of business is to do something you love – whether that’s walking your kids to school and taking a moment to greet the other parents, engaging in the exercise or meditation routine that makes you feel like your best self without rushing through it, or taking your dog on a favorite nearby hike. Following a wonderful start to your day, you look forward to your work, because you have full autonomy over what that work is and how much of it you do. On top of that, you feel valued and supported by your colleagues.
Where oh where, you ask, might you find this mythical workplace environment that offers flexibility, agency, and genuinely encourages your success? Surely not in law, you guess, knowing all too well based on experience that law firm and in-house counsel life are a grind that eventually spits you out, particularly for women. Perhaps your experience is confirmed by the Law360 2022 Glass Ceiling Report on women in law which reports that major firms have made almost no progress on bringing women into the top leadership and partner levels. Or perhaps, you’re one of the scores of in-house lawyers who, despite working tirelessly and especially during the pandemic, was recently laid off, or might be in the near future.
Indeed, the landscape for women lawyers on traditional paths – Biglaw, and in-house jobs in particular – remains riddled with inequities. We start our law careers thinking that we’re on equal footing with our male counterparts. After all, women make up at least 50% of law school graduates, as they have for a generation, and comprise around 50% of the associates at major firms, according to the Law360 Report. But over the years, those numbers dwindle. Across the board in Biglaw, women make up roughly 20% of equity partners and 30% of non-equity partners. 2020 Survey Report on the Promotion and Retention of Women In Law Firms, published by the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL). In 2020, women held only a small percentage of law firm leadership jobs: They were 12% of managing partners, 28% of governance committee members, and 27% of practice group leaders, according to NAWL.
The in-house numbers aren’t much better. Across the country, the number of women in top legal positions (particularly CLO/GC) is roughly 30%, according to the 2020 Inclusion Index Survey Report published by The Minority Corporate Counsel Association.
Law firm pay also tracks inequities among men and women. The ABA published disheartening statistics in 2022 about Women in the Legal Profession, noting that “[l]aw firm pay for women almost caught up to pay for men among associates and non-equity partners in 2020, but a sizable gap still existed at the highest levels. In 2020, female associates and female non-equity partners received, on average, 95% of the compensation of their male counterparts. But among equity partners, women received just 78% of the compensation of men, on average. There were virtually no women among the very highest-compensated law firm attorneys in 2020. Only 2% of law firms said their highest-paid attorney is female – and that number actually dropped from 8% in 2005.”
Perhaps most telling about the prospects of advancement for women in Biglaw is that male and female lawyers “strongly disagree on how well their law firms foster long-term careers for women.” That was one conclusion from a 2019 study published by the ABA and ALM Intelligence, which explored why experienced female lawyers are leaving law firms. The report includes results from a survey of more than 1,200 senior lawyers at the nation’s largest law firms. The survey showed that men generally thought their law firms treated women fairly, but women disagreed. For example, the vast majority of men (88%) said gender diversity is widely acknowledged as a firm priority, but barely half of women (54%) agreed. Also, nearly 3 out of 4 men (74%) said their law firms successfully retained experienced women but again, less than half of women (47%) agreed. As to why experienced female lawyers leave their firms, the women surveyed ranked caretaking commitments as the No. 1 reason (58%), followed by stress at work (54%) and emphasis on marketing or originating business (51%).
Some women have chosen to build a solo or boutique practice. That path can be rewarding insofar as it sidesteps glass ceilings, office politics, pay inequity, and other ills found in Biglaw and in-house legal jobs. But solo or boutique practices have their perils too. For one thing, they tend to be riddled with administrative work which falls to the lawyers (particularly the female ones) and eats time that would otherwise be spent on client work or free time. And as a solo, unless you have been good about building and maintaining a network of lawyers with whom you can collaborate, it can often feel lonely and lacking in oft-needed support.
Before you throw in the towel on your law degree or settle for another law job that undervalues and fails to serve you, think about this: There is an emerging model that enables women to build a practice that is more fulfilling, reflecting their own personal definition of success, rather than one that has been dictated by someone else, and enjoy the support of like-minded colleagues. The model found widespread adoption in the pandemic, which fundamentally changed workplace norms around daily attendance on a proscribed schedule in a physical office. Unlike Biglaw and many in-house legal departments which are ratcheting up the pressure to return to the office, distributed law firms like Scale LLP have, instead, embraced these changes. This model – which doubles down on flexibility and encourages lawyers to structure their day in a way that makes sense for them – has a profound effect on the viability of sustaining a law practice over the long term, especially for women.
“Scale is attractive to female attorneys because: (1) our lean structure passes a greater portion of fees through to attorneys, allowing the flexibility and work-life balance that’s structurally impossible at big law firms; and (2) we’re focused on building a culture of collegiality that’s supported by aligned financial incentives for us to collaborate,” says Heather Cantua, Deputy Managing Partner at Scale. “On my recruiting calls with female partners, it gives me pride to be able to answer all their questions authentically and with real solutions to their problems. The proof is in the numbers: Scale is 53% female partners,” she adds.
Cantua is a consumer finance attorney who began her career in Biglaw, and later went in-house in the fintech sector. She joined Scale in 2019 and hasn’t looked back: “Scale is different because I value my own time. I set my own rates. I decide which clients to work for and what work to take. I now don’t need to wait for someone else to give me a path. I create my own path. One of the best compliments is when I see former colleagues and friends and they comment on how I seem much happier now,” says Cantua. For her, Scale’s ethos and strategic vision has made all the difference. “I hope that other attorneys who want to challenge the assumptions of the entire legal industry can find a home. The past couple of years have taught me that the pace of change is not slowing down. And so now I’m trying to learn how to ride those waves of change and have a career that accommodates my life instead of a life that has to accommodate a career. Now, when I want to go hard at work, I can. And when I need to take a break, I can because I have control,” says Cantua.
In-house female attorneys have also found a home at Scale. Before joining Scale, Amy Duvanich was the rare breed of lawyer who went to work in-house shortly after graduating from law school, working for companies in industries ranging from education, retail, real estate, and software. Duvanich reached an “aha” moment, realizing she could combine her talents and passions and best serve clients by becoming a fractional general counsel to start-up companies, and then realized that the Scale model was a terrific fit for her vision. “The services and rates we are able to provide due to the structural differences between Scale and traditional law firms really benefits startups and small businesses,” says Duvanich. For Duvanich, the prospect of getting to bring value to multiple rather than just one organization was especially attractive, as is the fact that she has control over what work she chooses to do.
Duvanich also appreciates the fact that a large number of Scale’s attorneys have an in-house background. “Attorneys with significant experience in-house are well situated to provide practical and efficient guidance shoulder to shoulder with our business partners. Efficient guidance is important to all clients, but it is especially important to startups. I am able to handle most of what my clients need, and I have colleagues that are able to fill in any gaps,” says Duvanich.
Jamie Wells is a litigator hailing from Biglaw who joined Scale right in the middle of the pandemic. Her transition to Scale from a large law firm was “seamless and my days now feel like my days used to feel, with the exception that I have a lot more ease and time, and that allows me to actually be better at providing service to clients, building teams, networking, and expanding my own business.” For Wells, working in a team is critically important, and she has found that at Scale, in spades. “Culturally it’s a great fit because everybody is remote, so it’s very easy to actually connect in a way that I wasn’t expecting,” says Wells.
When Wells first started at Scale, she was constantly approached by other Scale attorneys with the question “What can we work on together? And that was so important to me because I like working on teams, I like building teams, I like sharing work, sharing credit. And across the board, everybody at Scale shares that mentality.” Wells recommends Scale for “somebody that is hungry, wants to take their career into their hands and do what they think is right for them.” As to her own decision to join Scale, Wells says “I’ve completely bet on myself and succeeded.”
Women in law like Heather Cantua, Amy Duvanich, and Jamie Wells are now driving an entirely new way to practice law. They are actively building successful practices at Scale on their own terms: promoting themselves and building a stronger book of business; exercising autonomy to choose the “who / what / where / when” over their work; achieving self-defined meaning and purpose in their practices; and keeping more of the things they love while shedding the things they want to leave behind.
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