***Please enjoy this blog posted on behalf of the co-authors, Kristin Rhodes, Senior Practice Manager, Paul Hastings LLP and Harriet Joubert-Vaklyes, Senior Project Manager - Legal Operations, CBRE Group.
I am going to admit something embarrassing to you: I’ve been in legal for more than 15 years and I’m not an attorney. I thought about going to law school but at that time the economy had recently tanked and many of the associates I worked with seemed unhappy. Instead, I got my Master’s degree in philosophy and public policy. It’s important for you to know that because I work in a profession where degrees and pedigree matter. They matter so much that they affect my feelings of self-worth. I feel like I constantly need to prove myself, and hide this secret--that I’m not an attorney--because the dichotomy between us and them is reinforced in many ways at many firms.
I felt this way as a paralegal when I had more experience than the entering associate, but my value was not assumed; I had to prove knowledge and experience before each new case. The differences between attorneys and non-attorneys are further accentuated through the structure of the firm. For example, some firms set up separate employee resource groups (“ERG”) for attorneys and business services/non-attorneys (i.e. a women’s group for attorneys, and a women’s group for others). Some firms separate their staff and attorneys onto different floors, or even separate buildings.
These divisions play out in personal ways. I once managed a paralegal, 10 years my junior, who was promoted to a better office than me because he was going to law school at night. Just the anticipation of his JD outranked my years of experience. One partner at a prior firm told me that if I invited non-attorneys to an internal lunch, then it would devalue the prestige of the lunch and less attorneys would join. And she wasn’t wrong. The more paralegals or staff I invited, the less inclined the attorneys were to join.
My ILTA colleague and partner on this project, Harriet Joubert-Vaklyes, has also experienced similar divides in her law firm career. We’ve both noticed that in meetings between attorneys and business staff, staff members often attempt to legitimize their authority by spotlighting that they used to be practicing attorneys, even if not germane to the role. (Not that I can blame them. As noted, sometimes I also mention my MA degree, which is also not related to the work, for that extra boost of legitimacy).
This dichotomy at law firms is hard to break. Firms make money by attorneys selling their expertise. It’s how people on the business services side get paid. But without the “non-attorney”/business side of the firm, there would also be no firm; they need infrastructure to operate. What’s more, firms need good infrastructure to operate well. Law firms are notoriously leanly staffed and, depending on the partnership revenue cycle, may be short sighted on overhead investments.
But this is starting to change. Harriet and I wanted to take the pulse of the market beyond our anecdotal references; how persistent is the divide? We developed a survey that touches on all areas where the separation can be felt: physical space, benefits, ERGs, development, client-facing opportunities, marketing, and branding. We posted this survey on LinkedIn and invited everyone to participate. We heard back from a wide range of respondents, from law firms of all sizes, and various roles. We’ve highlighted a few of the results below.
We were pleasantly surprised by some of the responses, including a welcome shift away from segregating staff and attorneys by floor or office: the majority of respondents’ firms have legal and business staff interspersed.
Firm size influenced whether “non-legal” folks were brought into meetings: larger firms appear to perpetuate the difference between legal and “non-legal” employees more than smaller firms, whereas smaller firms allow for more fluidity in roles and how people are brought in. Additionally, there is still a large gap in parental leave offered by role, specifically at large firms. These are areas we know large firms are working on, and look forward to seeing these divides lessen over time.
One of the most interesting aspects of the survey was how law firm size played into both DEI participation and ERG availability. While respondents generally participated in DEI surveys, employee resources groups weren’t necessarily available in equal parts to legal and business professionals. Again, we know firms are working on this, and look forward to seeing this gap addressed over the coming years.
We also collected anecdotal feedback that we could track by firm. We noticed that some firms still have a long way to go: they are rigidly divided throughout all the structural ways discussed. But other firms seem to be ahead, some offering full training academies for their business professionals and others giving window offices to senior (non-attorney) managers where appropriate. Overall, we are encouraged by the results of this survey as evidence that many law firms are thinking about culture for all employees.
Why This Matters
But more importantly, we think that this matters. Not only because we have been the “others” and it makes us feel better to be included, but also because we genuinely believe that bridging this divide is helpful for the organization for the following reasons:
- Creating an inclusive culture improves recruiting and retention. People are more likely to stay in a firm, recommend a firm, and move to a firm, that treats them equitably.
- Investment in all employees leads to a better business. Investing in good employees, particularly in a leanly-staffed organization, is key to managing the firm well and keeping up with the high-stakes, client-service environment.
- Provide better results for clients. Clients have become increasingly savvy about law firm rates and outputs. Exasperated by the downturn, rising rates, and by the growth of alternative (less-expensive) legal providers, clients are focused on the efficiency of their legal services. They may require a project manager, lower cost timekeepers, or evidence that the firm is well-run.
We hope to bring awareness to this issue by talking about it. We plan to release additional content on this topic and welcome continued feedback and ideas.