Change the Game: Women, the Law, and Technology


Happy International Women's Day.

A lot of people will be paying lip service to feminism today. Rather than add to the onslaught of glib little posts about the empowerment of women, I wanted to talk about something real.

Let's talk about women and the law.
Let's talk about how private practice is haemorrhaging women.
Let's talk about how to stop the bleeding.

The law, as a profession, should be awesome for women. It's demanding, but it's a profession and is, by definition, flexible. The potential salaries are high. Apart from the (sometimes very funny) lawyer jokes, the prestige and social clout is also attractive. You can help people. Most of all, the practice of law can be extremely rewarding.

I say "can be", because a lot of the time it isn't rewarding for women. Why? A lot of it has to do with expectation vs. reality.

Consider the following.

Fantasy: You work hard. Get your law degree. Get called to the bar. Get a job at a big firm. Work hard. Get paid (well). Work hard. Move up corporate ladder. Work hard. Become partner. Did I mention work hard?

Essentially, the fantasy is one of fairness.

All too common reality: Get called to the bar. Get a job at a big firm. Work hard. Work hard. Get paid. Work hard. Work hard. Work hard. Maybe you make partner. Work hard. Die.

A lot of stuff happens in between those steps. Maybe you have babies. Maybe you don't. Maybe you negotiate hard for your salary. Maybe you don't. Maybe you're really good at your job. Maybe you're not. This isn't about the wage gap, or maternity leave, or how female lawyers are treated in big firms. Ok... it is. BUT today, I want to focus on the positive.

This is about the feminist statements technology facilitates.

Bear with me.

Not that long ago, I went "out on my own". I started my own practice. I literally built it.

This is me "building my practice". The more astute of you will notice I am actually ripping it down. Inspirational Quote: sometimes you have to rip out a few walls to build something new... or something like that.

The timing was weird. I was just over one year into practice. I was starting another company. I was starting to think about family (*gasp*... I can talk openly about that now). I was figuring out where I was headed professionally. I determined there would never be a "good time" - so I did it.

I defined a relatively narrow area of practice and started slow so I could take the time to build my business, foster relationships with the clients who had faith enough to come with me, and figure out the beast that is running a trust account.

It has been awesome. I have never worked harder in my entire life, but it has been absolutely awesome.

The work, the hours, the fear(lessness). These have been part of it, but another absolutely integral part has been how I've used technology to get me started and keep me going.

Before I made the decision to go rogue, I took the opportunity to see another lawyer at his shop. Papers everywhere. 1970s furniture (I'm not kidding - there was a lot of brown plaid). I thought, "Ugg.. This man is an amazing lawyer, but this is a waste of time. We're too different". But he gave me a piece of advice that has defined my approach to setting up my firm:

You don't need an assistant.

This was earth shattering. I had been working at a medium sized firm with a relatively large amount of support staff. All those lovely people were an integral part of the machine there... but only because the machine used a business model established in the 80s. You don't need an assistant? Yes you do!... wait... no... no you don't.

He was right. Assistants are overhead. They're helpful, capable, lovely overhead, but they're overhead. The fear of overhead is what prevents a lot of lawyers from striking out on their own.

Emboldened by the wisdom of the brilliant man with the old furniture, I began work on setting up my practice.

I set up a tool kit. Law practice management software that integrated with my accounting software. I optimized my precedents for automation. I took the time to carefully streamline my work processes. That's not to say this was all perfect in the beginning. I've been tweaking everything from my chart of accounts to my letterhead constantly. I will likely be tinkering with these things, and many others, in perpetuity. The point is, technology made it possible for me to go out on my own by allowing me to run a lean, efficient practice. The technology I chose removed the initial hurdles.

Listen to me. I sound like some kind of lone ranger. I can't go any further without acknowledging that I did not do this on my own. My spouse is fantastic. Speaking of feminists, he's the best one I know.

How does technology relate to feminism?

Feminism to women of my vintage is the freedom of choice. Choose to have children, or not. Choose to have a career, stay home with your children, or both. Nobody said any of these things are easy, just that you can choose.

I chose to remove myself from being an employee. I did this because I wanted the freedom to choose what computer I use (I'm not kidding - it's important), but I also did this because I wanted to choose how I worked, when I worked, and for how much.

Was I a victim of the wage gap? I don't know. To be honest, I didn't want to hang around long enough to find out. Even being vulnerable to that kind of nonsense was too much for me to handle.

Right now I'm working really hard, all the time, for not a lot of money. I'm in the beginning. The thing is, I was doing that anyway... except I was doing it for someone else... someone else who may or may not have paid me fairly. Someone else who may or may not have treated me differently because I'm a woman.

Why did I go out on my own? A big part of it was removing myself, as much as possible, from a system where I was likely to experience extreme disadvantage by virtue of my sex.

I didn't like the game, so I changed the rules. Technology helped me do that.

You've read the articles. Women are leaving the law (or at least private practice). They're not leaving because they're weak. They're leaving because the only alternatives were to stay and put up with the nonsense or fight the patriarchy (and likely lose - on an individual level).

But now.... now technology gives lawyers (women and men a like) the freedom to set up their own shop, run it lean, and break free from whatever system is holding them back.

Fight the power, man.

... did I talk about the job satisfaction? Imagine your best day working at the firm you're working at now - it's like that, but you get to keep the money.

I'm on my own now. Slugging it out. Loving (almost) every second of it. The systems I have put in place have allowed me to start my practice with limited resources. That option wouldn't have been open to me ten years ago.

Technology (current and anticipated) has the potential to allow women lawyers to hang out their shingle, make their own way, and change the rules of the game.

Feminism for me is about choice.
I've chosen to use technology, work hard, and take the risk of starting my own firm.
It's not for everybody, but I hope more women will choose this path.

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