Dumb and Dumber

I thought it was critically important a woman guest blogger posit her views on the Clifford Chance controversy. In the interests of full transparency, it should be noted that Peppercomm once represented the law firm. I strongly suggest you post your comments on today’s blog. How would you have handled the crisis (i.e. this was front page news in The New York Post)? And, do you agree with Erin’s POV?

Today’s guest post is by Peppercommer Erin Howard.

Late last week, news broke that a partner from the law firm Clifford Chance circulated a memo titled “Presentation Tips for Women” to the firm’s female associates.  What’s that you ask? Why wouldn’t men and women find presentation tips helpful? Maybe because the majority weren’t actually presentation tips at all. sexy prosecutor aaapublic defender costumes

Here are a few of my favorite gems from the memo that was shared on Above the Law:
•    Don’t giggle; Don’t squirm; Don’t tilt your head.
•    “Like” “You’ve got to Lose “Um” and “Uh,” “You Know,” “OK,” and “Like.”
•    Think Lauren Bacall, not Marilyn Monroe.
•    Practice hard words.
•    Wear a suit, not your party outfit.
•    No one heard Hillary the day she showed cleavage.

There are so many offensive things about this situation, and the attack on women through the memo is just the beginning.   The offensiveness keeps coming with the firm’s response – or non-response should I say – which was shared with Above the Law:

“The original presentation and associated tips represented a personal perspective, shared with a group of colleagues, some just starting out in their careers… While much of what is covered is common sense, we believe that it is important that women as well as men are given access to a range of different viewpoints and approaches…The offense caused by a small percentage of the suggestions in the tip sheet was entirely unintentional.”

The firm made two classic blunders here:
1.    Allowing the presentation tips to be shared with female associates in the first place.
2.    Not recognizing and apologizing for the offensive content in the response. Instead, Clifford Chance inferred it was no big deal.

Basic crisis communications tactics would have led Clifford Chance to admit fault in allowing the memo to circulate, apologize, and publicly announce a new policy or procedure to ensure it won’t happen again.  These actions would have illustrated that the firm takes sexism seriously. But that isn’t what happened. Simply put, this behavior – the memo and the response – is unacceptable. What’s astounding though, is that this sexism is almost expected:

Gothamist said in its response to the memo: “To be fair, it is important that someone teaches young women just starting in their careers out how chauvinistic law firms can be.”

And Above the Law: “While we look forward to seeing the “common sense” memo distributed to the firm’s male attorneys… we have a distinct feeling that it just doesn’t exist.”

By brushing something as serious as sexism aside, the firm is setting a precedent that this behavior is completely acceptable.  It’s not only harmful to the women at Clifford Chance, but it’s harmful to the perception of BigLaw as a whole. As we see from the media’s reaction, incidents like these force the perception of how women are treated at law firms to take five steps back – for everyone.

How can this perception be changed? For starters, by changing the reality. The 2012 National Association of Women Lawyers survey found that the medium percentage of female equity partners at AmLaw100 firms was a mere 14.8%.  While this won’t change overnight, communications can help move this change forward by raising awareness of the problem. Communications can also help change the perception of how firms value women – internally and externally.  Firms that realize the importance of increasing the women in their top ranks can be more vocal about programs that support women and their dedication to the advancement of women. And certainly, when incidents like this happen – which they are bound to – firms can proactively acknowledge the fault and proactively take positive steps – publically – to communicate that this is completely unacceptable.

9 thoughts on “Dumb and Dumber

  1. There’s a BIG difference between Hooter’s and Clifford Chance, Bubbles. The former is transparent in its portrayal of women as objects. The latter is in denial.

  2. Is Clifford Chance a global law firm or a finishing school for 14 year-olds? And their “sorry, any offense was unintentional,” apology could have been written by a Hooter’s manager. Maybe there’s a correlation there?

  3. This is a great post, Erin. Sadly, it ALSO reinforces all of the negative stereotypes of men. The Luddites at Clifford Chance aren’t just belittling women; they’re belittling men at the very same time. And, the non-apology strikes me as a crisis communications worst practice that should be avoided at all costs.

    • Thanks, Steve. I totally agree. Firms need to think clearly about their responses in crisis situations. Those are often as scrutinized as the actual event themselves. As communications professionals, its imperative that we think about how how reaction to situations will be interpreted.

  4. Fantastic post, Erin. If a company feels it needs to send a memo like that to a particular group of women, then those women shouldn’t be working there . . . but I am confident the women who do work there weren’t committing any of these “errors” in the workplace. I normally would say I would love to see what a similar memo would look like if it were sent to males, but no memos of this sort should be sent at all.

    To me, it seems like the memo was sent just to belittle and do exactly what The Gothamist suggests–remind women how chauvinistic the industry can be. At it’s base, it’s a clear message that women are not welcome/wanted at this firm and sends a terrible message to both men and women.

    • Laura, I totally agree with you. The memo was actually sent by a woman, which is upsetting. Sexism isn’t just man-to-woman. As long as behaviors like this are permitted, women will continue to be behind men in many industries.

      • Sadly, Erin brings up another good point – that women in the workplace are often our own worst enemies. Rather than helping bring other women up through the ranks, they take the stance that they fought hard to get to the top and you’ll have to too.

        Until women learn to support, mentor and motivate other women we’ll continue to also hold ourselves back.

        • “Until women learn to support, mentor and motivate other women we’ll continue to also hold ourselves back.”

          I couldn’t agree more with this statement. In fact, I’ve been saying this for years. Men are not the enemy of women’s advancement in the workplace — women are. I have been mentored more by men in my career and hindered more by women. Unfortunately, it is every woman for herself. Women are in competition for women when it comes to men and to jobs.