Law practice is still a boy’s club.
Sure, many women make partner these days and are promoted through the ranks in in-house legal departments.
But what controls are in place to ensure the retention and promotion of women at small law firms?
In my experience: NONE.
I had dinner with a friend last night who repeatedly referred to herself as “the girl in the frat house.” She is the only female associate at a small law firm, where the practice (and the professionals) is testosterone-driven.
Rather than sharing her story, however, I will share my own.
In my former position, I worked at a small law firm of less than ten attorneys. Both named partners were men, all of the senior counsel were men, and all of the associates and support staff were female.
My boss had a very specific modus operandi when making hires. Not only did he only hire women, but he was very deliberate about what type of woman, which even extended as far as ethnic profiling.
Each one of us had been unemployed upon being hired by the firm, enabling him to offer inappropriately low salaries which, in our respective desperate states, we simply could not say no to.
But it didn’t stop there.
My boss was a large and menacing individual, prone to mood swings and eager to assign blame.
If a clerical error was made (usually by his own inability to spot a typo), he would yell at the secretaries often until his fit had elicited tears.
If he couldn’t find a file (usually because he hadn’t bothered to look) he would convert an experienced associate in to his personal file clerk, forcing them to upend half of the office until finally the file would just magically appear on his desk…all the while making the capable associate feel entirely incompetent.
He would yell and scream and threaten. And while I was assured upon hire that raises and reviews would occur annually, I only received one of each during my time there. On my last day, I was still being paid less than I had asked for on my cover letter.
If we asked for reviews or raises he would say that if we wanted more money that we should look for another job. Then he would tell us that we probably wouldn’t find anything else, but that he could find someone else to do our jobs for less.
He would skip reviews and raises in January, but drop Godiva chocolates on our desks on Valentine’s Day. He would always tell us with a smile, eagerly seeking our praise and gratitude.
He never learned anything about us. He always considered us fungible. We meant nothing, we had no value to him — even though we were the ones running his business.
On a day after being particularly nasty, he would be particularly kind. This made us feel remorseful for all of the angry cursing and muttering we’d made under our breath the day before.
He always created an environment where we simultaneously hated him but felt forever in his debt.
It was, in so many ways, an abusive culture.
But, as such a small company, we did not have a human resources department, or any other controls in place to create a forum for the female employees to express their concerns and fight for appropriate raises and promotions.
If you didn’t like how the boss was running things, you had only one option: LEAVE.
Have you ever worked in an “testosterone fueled” environment? What resources were available to either put a stop to the uncomfortable behavior or help you cope?
For more articles from the “Running from the Law” series, click below: