When I was a teen girl growing up in Silicon Valley, I was always the only female in programming classes, whether those taken during my summers or while in school. These classes left me with an awkward, uncomfortable feeling of knowing I belonged there, intellectually, proven out by my scoring the top grade in the classes every time, but, culturally, being treated as though I didn’t belong. If you talk to other women in tech, this is a common experience.
Tech, as we know, is a profession that skews male. Only about a quarter of U.S. computing and tech jobs are held by women and that figure has fallen slightly over the past 15 years. The issue of gender equality in tech has recently become more top of mind after Uber commissioned an internal report that mentioned numerous instances of sexual harassment at the company.
But tech isn’t the only industry with a gender equality problem. My industry, law, is also rife with gender equality issues. The 2017 Law360 Glass Ceiling Report found that women still only make up about 35% of the attorneys in the law firms it surveyed.
In my experience, women in law are swimming against the tide and being tech-savvy goes against the grain in the legal profession. While the legal industry has improved in terms of gender equality and in its embrace of technology, there is no correlation between the two although they’ve evolved at the same time.
It took a long time for law to warm to tech.
Some professions naturally incorporate technology into their operations. Law isn’t one of them. When I first started in law over 20 years ago, I remember teaching people who had already been practicing attorneys how to use the Internet and how to use e-mail. Back then, having created a domain name startup at the time, I recall trying to explain to people why it was important and valuable to have a .com web site address and having a hard time getting them to understand.
The reasons why law has lagged in tech adoption are many and include tradition, a fear of being hacked and the fact that most lawyers are right-brained individuals for whom tech, like math, is a nettlesome subject that they’d rather avoid. Big law firms are also tied to a billable hours system that incents them to avoid the type of efficiencies that tech brings to other industries.
I’ve seen a lot of change in the last five years in this industry in part because tech has now become such a part of the fabric of our everyday lives that no industry can ignore it any longer. Yet, the legal industry is pretty far behind. I still hear conversations about “whether to join social media” or “whether to adopt the cloud” and I can’t believe people are still talking about this in 2017.
Women’s gains in law have also taken time.
The status of women in the legal profession has increased over the past couple of decades as well. As with acceptance of technology, it has taken the industry a while to appreciate the need for diversity in law.
Sometimes the two work together: There are more women leading legal tech companies, although we remain a minority. Increasing the number of women-led tech companies, including those involving legal tech, helps to foster more innovation and more women in leadership roles. Overall though, we are seeing a few women running some of the most prestigious biglaw firms in the U.S., something that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.
A study by the National Association of Women Lawyers found that there were more female equity partners, non-equity partners and counsel attorneys in 2016 than in 2006. We are also seeing more women in the role of Chief Legal Officer for publicly traded companies although the numbers still remain very low.
The future of law: More women and more tech.
Looking ahead over the next few years, the biggest changes in law are likely to be on the tech front. For one thing, all of the legal work that doesn’t need to be executed by lawyers could be done by machines. AI and chatbots can replace some things that lawyers do as well and in other areas augment what they do.
Both options can provide real value to clients. This technology layer will also democratize law so that people in underserved communities will have better access to justice and the help they need. In other words, there will a degree of DIY in law that doesn’t exist now that will help clients do a lot on their own, but be able to find the right lawyer if need be.
This will be a boon to society because currently a lot of people in this country need lawyers but can’t afford one. While bots may not replace lawyers any time soon, they’ll certainly help take on grunt work and let lawyers focus on the more challenging and creative parts of the job.
AI will also foster some experimentation in law. We’ll see some alternative law firm models and more managed services and legal process outsourcing. Over time, these will take over the industry. Meanwhile, I believe the business world is at a point now in which CEOs and investors realize that gender discrimination is bad policy and that the industry has only hurt itself by under-representing women. So perhaps a bigger change over the next few years will be the further rise of women in the industry, both in law and in legal technology. Personally, I’d like to see more women leading legal tech companies and more legal industry recognition for women-led legal tech solutions.
Just as today’s girls are realizing that coding isn’t a male profession, they can also take heart that there are opportunities to rise to the top of all aspects of the legal profession as well. It’s about time.
About the Author
Monica Zent is an experienced entrepreneur, investor, businesswoman and trusted legal advisor to the world’s largest brands. Zent has been a successful entrepreneur for decades. Her most recent venture is as Founder & CEO of Foxwordy (see below), the collaboration platform for lawyers. She is also the Founder of ZentLaw, one of the leading alternative law firms in the US. For many years, Zent has been an active investor in real estate and startups in California, and has dedicated her time and talent to a variety of charitable causes and pro bono service. When she’s not running companies, Zent is running distance as an endurance athlete. More: @MonicaZent | LinkedIn | Medium