Shattering the ‘Two-Seater Mentality’

Pat Gillette wants firms to put more women and minorities in the board room

Published in 2017 Northern California Super Lawyers magazine

By Trevor Kupfer on July 7, 2017


“Don’t fix the women. Fix the structure.”

Pat Gillette is passionate about diversity. She speaks on the topic at about 40 events per year; and in 2006, she founded the Opt-In Project, bringing leaders from various industries to discuss how they were retaining and promoting women, so their strategies could be applied to law firms. She was also on the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession and co-chair of the San Francisco Bar Association’s No Glass Ceiling Initiative. 

The Opt-In Project’s case study of law firms observed, among other things, that rethinking compensation formulas and the ways people are measured and rewarded could help prevent attrition.

Not everyone has always agreed with her message: “When I first went out and started talking about the Opt-In Project, I got booed off the stage by people. I had a guy who’s the chair of a major firm stand up in a room with 100 people and say, ‘Why should I care about this? I’ve got 100 white males I can hire any day. Why should I care about diversity?’ And he wasn’t joking. This was in 2008.”

She adds, “It’s not that [women] aren’t capable; it’s that they’re not being given the opportunity—because white men are making the decisions.” 

Now a mediator at JAMS and a frequent keynote speaker, Gillette worked as an employment lawyer for more than 40 years, watching as corporations made more progress toward diversity than law firms. According to a 2015 National Association of Women Lawyers’ survey, women account for 18 percent of equity partners at law firms; lawyers of color 8 percent—less than a third of them female—and LGBT lawyers 2 percent. 

“We’re risk-averse; we don’t like change,” Gillette says of the legal industry. “We call people ‘non-lawyers.’ We don’t have non-CEOs or non-physicians, but we have non-lawyers, and what that tells you about lawyers, in my opinion, is arrogance. We think we’re different from everybody else and nobody could possibly understand the challenges we face.”

To turn away women and minorities from leadership roles is to exclude 50 percent of law school graduates—not to mention their ideas. “Decisions that are made by diverse groups, and businesses that are run by diverse populations, are far more successful than those run by people of the same gender and background,” Gillette says. 

Though some firms are on the front lines of promoting diversity, many have added women and minorities to “look good on paper,” she says. And at some firms, Gillette suspects “the two-seater mentality” comes into play in leadership roles. 

“There are two seats that are available—sort of like the Supreme Court. When the black judge retires, you put a black judge in that seat, but you don’t ever consider putting a black guy in after a white guy retires. That is typical of most law firms: ‘We do have diversity because we have one woman on our executive committee,’ or: ‘We have two women, and that’s enough.’”

Gillette also has a message for associates: “Say, ‘We want power. We don’t want to just talk about work-life balance. We understand how the finances of the firm work. We understand how you generate business. We understand what it means to be a leader.’” 

She sees reasons for hope. “Clients are really pushing to have more diversity, both in the people who represent them and in the leadership of the firm,” she says. “Clients like Microsoft are saying, ‘Not only do we want you to have a diverse team, but here’s something else we need: We need you to ensure that a woman or a minority is going to have a speaking role.’”

In February, HP’s general counsel announced it will penalize firms that don’t meet a diversity mandate. “There are clients like Michelle Banks, [former] general counsel to Gap, who literally calls out firms that don’t have women in leadership,” Gillette says. “If, all of a sudden, clients aren’t going to give you business, that’s a big deal.”

Also, millennials, who expect diversity, are pushing the industry to change, Gillette says, and are willing to walk out if they’re unsatisfied. “I’m an optimist,” she says, “so I really do think things will improve.”

Pat Gillette’s Worst Experiences

“I have not experienced discrimination in my career except on two occasions. One was at a firm where I think the leader was threatened by strong women. The other time was in a trial where I was the only woman. I led the team, because it was my client. I felt that the judge discriminated against me on the basis of gender, and I actually called him out on it.

“I was really interested in how the judge would treat me after that. He was much more careful, but he would still interrupt me and say really demeaning things. I’m a pretty experienced and successful trial lawyer, so it’s not like I’m making rookie mistakes, but he had been very, very disrespectful to me—and not to the men in the courtroom. At one point, when I was doing part of my closing argument, he interrupted me. You’ve got a flow going, right? He says, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, Ms. Gillette. I forgot to tell the jury something.’ It had nothing to do with anything. He just wanted to interrupt me. 

“Otherwise, I will say, I did not have the experience that many women have where they’re treated as second-class citizens. It allows me to speak about these issues without having an axe to grind—because I was lucky.

“I was raised in South Central L.A. and was one of two white kids in my high school graduating class. White kids were excluded from certain clubs and activities, believe it or not, so I realized early on what it means to be in the minority. … So I became pretty passionate about diversity issues.

“I love moving people to think outside the box. So I’ve dedicated a large part of my career to doing that—changing our industry and proposing radical new ways of thinking about how we practice law to be more inclusive.”

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