As part of our regular in-house lawyers' blog, we focus on dilemmas faced by in-house solicitors and ask what would you do? The dilemmas are based on real situations with minor changes to anonymise them. We examine business, ethical and personal challenges in-house lawyers may face and we hope the questions will help you reflect on how you would handle this situation.
You’re meeting a law firm. They’re bidding for work and they've just handed you their team sheet. You immediately spot all the partners are male.
"Don't you have any female partners?" you ask.
They laugh. "No. It's a complete sausage-fest in our department."
You don't laugh (well, not until an image of an actual sausage-fest pops in your mind. You’re imagining 10,000 chipolatas packed into a dance tent and listening to some bangers. You’re sure that's not what the partner actually meant though).
But you don't say anything. That's not the point of this conversation. This conversation is to confirm whether this particular firm has the necessary experience to work for your organisation. They do. Out of all the firms approached, this was the only firm who could point to similar work in the last 12 months. The partner you’re speaking to is lauded in legal directories. The firm is "leading". It is "innovative". It even says it's "exciting", which you haven't yet tested but you half imagine it means they treat legal work like a rollercoaster and you should just strap in and enjoy the ride.
Who wants exciting legal work? It's a curious phrase but one which crops up again and again from law firms. Exciting news. Exciting developments. There is news. There are developments. You don't need to be emotionally manipulated and told how to feel. Where will it end? Flirty news?
It's been a bad day.
You said nothing. You should have called him out. You should have pointed out that the firm had many female partners who would be shocked to hear it described as a "sausage-fest". Instead, you bottle it. You don't talk about it. The moment has passed. You shake hands. You say goodbye and when they're gone you ask yourself a simple question. Should you pick another firm on the back of one sexist comment? A firm with less experience, with a team that's not done this work directly before? There should be an easy answer. Diversity matters - but so do results – and accountability. How will you explain to your board that you didn’t pick the obvious choice?
And people make mistakes, they say the wrong thing at the wrong time. He may have been trying to be funny but misjudged his comments. Should you reject them on the basis of one wrong word?
But, in a profession where male partners outnumber female when female solicitors are the majority throughout the profession, is it not up to us as in-house lawyers to ensure that sexism is challenged? In-house lawyers choose law firms and lawyers – should you not use that power to ensure equality is rewarded? What would you do?
If you’d like to get involved in the discussion around the topics raised by this article, you can join the conversation in our dedicated in-house lawyers LinkedIn group.