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Bar News - January 13, 2012

Opinion: Re: ABA Legal Secretary Survey
How Can We Improve Relations within the Legal Profession?


Recent reporting by on the results of a study of legal secretaries angered and outraged many female attorneys across the country. Other women attorneys publicly criticized their incensed colleagues in comments for their outrage. This sparked an ongoing controversy among female members of the American Bar Association and the National Conference of Women’s Bar Associations. Rather than taking a side in this debate, the NH Women’s Bar Association asks: What can we learn from this study and the reaction, and how can we improve relations within the legal profession?

In 2009 Chicago-Kent Law Professor Felice Batlan conducted a study of legal secretaries relationships with the attorneys with whom they work. The first commented on the study in its blog Women in the Law on May 26, 2010 by Debra Cassens Weiss in a post titled Law Prof Surveys Legal Secretaries, Chronicles Layoffs, Conflicts with Female Lawyers. It was not until a follow up blog post of October 24, 2011 that many female attorneys voiced their outrage at the ABA for the blog post, prompted by the headline: Not One Legal Secretary Surveyed Preferred Working with Women Partners; Prof Offers Reasons Why.

Individual female attorneys from across the country participated in a conference call on October 31, 2011, with Allen Pusey, Editor & Publisher of ABA Journal, and followed up with an email to Mr. Pusey demanding a retraction of the article and an apology for sexist reporting and handling of the article, specifically citing lack of journalistic standards. In response to the backlash, on November 4, 2011, reporter Debra Cassens Weiss wrote a follow up blog post addressing the controversy over publishing an article on the study. She reported on a type of gender bias called "gender wars" which occurs when gender bias against women turns into conflict among women. See ABAJournal.

Board members of the NH Women’s Bar Association discussed the ABA’s reporting of the study and the negative reaction to it by some female attorneys around the country. The consensus of the board was not outrage at the article, the study or the reporting. Rather, the board saw this as an opportunity to identify potential problems among women working in law firms, and to offer suggestions to resolve those problems. The mission of the NH Women’s Bar Association is to promote and support the advancement and interests of women in the legal community through leadership, professional interaction, education and the exchange of ideas between our members and the community.

Instead of insisting on a retraction, self examination and open discussions with staff or any subordinate whether an attorney or assistant are ways that female attorneys can improve relationships within their firm. The same techniques may be used by both men and women. The board members agreed that open communication is the key to a good working relationship.

I spoke with a legal assistant at a major New Hampshire law firm who has worked with both male and female attorneys. She finds women attorneys to be more driven and focused, but also more respectful of assistants, and more organized than male lawyers. She said that women tend to be more open to sharing gratitude for the work assistants do.

At the same time, she stated that legal assistants have a responsibility to support their attorneys. She said that an assistant needs to remember that when the attorney is either having a bad day, or is up against a deadline the assistant should ask, "How can I help?" Doing so can help diffuse a stressful situation. An open line of communication is key and the communication needs to go both ways.

I discussed with this assistant the roles personality types play in the work relationship. She agreed it was important for both the assistant and the attorney to understand how the other works. The assistant may do better with more instruction, or less interruptions. The assistant needs to learn how the attorney works best, and learn what is most important. For example, an assistant may spend time reviewing the attorney’s emails, but what she really needs are in-person reminders of appointments on the calendar.

What seemed to be the most important practice is the communication of needs both on the side of the assistant and the attorney. Each person should focus on developing a method to communicate that can be used on a daily basis. This helps to avoid pitfalls and unnecessary stress between the assistant and the attorney.

The NH Women’s Bar Association encourages continued dialogue among all attorneys and support staff. No matter the gender, attorneys hold a position of leadership. The wise attorney will develop leadership skills to ensure the success of her or his support staff. When support staff is managed in a fair and supportive manner, the attorney will benefit. And so will the firm. For more information about this article or the debate among women in the ABA and NCWBA, please feel free to contact me or any member of the board of directors of the NH Women’s Bar Association.

The NH Women’s Bar Association is an organization formed to promote and support the advancement of women in the legal community through leadership, professional interaction, education and the exchange of ideas between our members and the community. To learn more about the NHWBA or to join, go to Sheila Burnham is Cheshire County Representative to the NHWBA board of directors.

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