Being told to Smile More to Make Partner Isn’t Sexist

smile more to make partner

Recently I found a little story about an aspiring partner that got told to “smile more” if she wanted to get the nod from the other partners.

Queue outrage.

smile more to make partner
I wouldn’t go into business with this person if I could help it.

As reported on Slate, the original letter goes like this:

I’m a female lawyer on the brink of making partner at a midsize firm. I’ve been passed up several times in favor of male colleagues who bill fewer hours and generate significantly less business. When I asked what I needed to do to get there I was told I needed to smile more, come out of my office, and attend more company events and happy hours. I attend all holiday parties and major firm events, but I am already working 70-plus hours a week, which leaves me little time for my family. The happy hours are every week and last for hours, and I don’t drink! I am friendly and make conversation with the partners and get lots of praise from clients. I am already burned out, and it is affecting my family life and health. I’m just not sure I can give any more and the men that were promoted above me rarely attend any of these events, leave the office at 4, and I’m willing to bet were never told to smile more! I feel like this is a subtle form of discrimination. There is only one female partner out of 20 and these are the people voting. I’ve invested a lot in the company so it’s not that simple to just leave.

Now Prudence (Slate’s resident agony aunt for lawyers) mostly gives some sound advice, so far as I’m concerned – thanks Prudence!.

But as well as that we get a standard array of outrage headlines like “Smiling Should Never Be a Condition for Partnership” with not so well considered comments like “There really isn’t much room to interpret this as anything but sexist.”.


I am 100% certain that sexism exists in law firms and legal practice generally. I’m also 100% certain that people’s careers have been affected by it. But I’m less certain that sexism is the only possible factor at play here.

Let’s do what lawyers do, and read the letter properly. We’ll see if we can find some non-sexist aspects that might help us look at what partnership is really like, and what could be going on if not sexism.

Obviously I’m reading a lot into this letter, and much (or all) of what I say could be completely wrong. But we’ll just work with the facts we’re given.

Disclaimer: could this situation be sexist? Absolutely – it may well be that the partners of this firm are misogynist, sexist, women-haters who want the original writer to go home, look after the kids and do the dishes so her husband can do some real work. But what if, just for fun, we didn’t assume it was and didn’t let the froth coming out of our mouth to get in the way of some rational analysis?

Element #1 – Not Understanding What Partnership Is About

…who bill fewer hours and generate significantly less business.

So what? Is that the only criteria to partnership so far as the writer is concerned? Billing and Business?

Of course billing and business development is important, but it’s not the only factor.

Perhaps you just don’t have a good head for business. Perhaps you make strange decisions that people don’t understand.

Becoming a partner is going in to business with someone.

If for any of a million completely legitimate reasons I don’t want to be in business with you, having you be a participant in the decision making process, then I don’t give two hoots how much you earn.

The focus on billing is a clear flag that this aspiring partner is missing the point entirely, and has focused almost exclusively on billing and work generation, thinking that was the only thing that mattered.

What’s the likely missing element here? Read on…

Element #2 – Already Working 70 Plus Hours a Week…

I’m working 70 hours a week already

This is a helpful clue which supports the first.

You’re working 70 hours a week already (no doubt contributing to the excellent billing that you have) but within that 70 hours a week you’re not actually developing internal relationships with the team, your future partners, or your staff generally.

This lawyer obviously has a family, so I’m not suggesting she add another 20 hours a week to fit those in.

I’m suggesting, again, that perhaps the current partnership is concerned that her focus during her time at the office is largely about herself rather than the firm as a whole.

If she can’t develop a team, build relationships internally, and deal with people now because she’s obsessively focused on her own career, then how is she supposed to build and manage a team later when everything gets harder?

Element #3 – I am friendly…

I am friendly and make conversation

We could take this at face value and accept its truth, but I wonder just how accurate this is, or whether it’s a tale only one person tells.

As I read the letter, I see someone who is incredibly stressed, guilty about the amount of time they work, and struggling to develop internal relationships.

Which leads me to suspect that attempts to be friendly could be perceived as forced, rushed or contrived.

If someone (or a group of people) tells you to “smile more” then perhaps you’re not as friendly as you think yourself to be. Perhaps you need to honestly sit down with someone you trust inside the office who doesn’t rely on you for their income, and ask them some questions about what you assume…

Trying to be friendly isn’t the same as being friendly.

Element #4 – Come Out of the Office

'Come Out of Your Office More' is a nice way of saying that you're insular and self-focused.Click To Tweet

More and more, a picture is being painted of someone who is unapproachable.

Although you might perceive yourself as having an “open door” policy, if nobody else thinks you have one then you don’t.

“Come Out of Your Office More” is a nice way of saying that you’re insular and self-focused.

Culture is very important in law firms, and this suggests that you’re not a part of it in any way. If you’ve chosen to focus on billing and BD, then that’s fine – but that focus sounds like it has come at the expense of your relationships internally.

We come back to point #1 – partnership isn’t only about billing your guts out. In a mid-size firm, your ability to work both with other partners and to develop a team of hard working individuals to function at their best is critically important. Clearly there is a concern that you can’t do this, because you haven’t yet demonstrated your ability to.

Element #5 – Burned Out

I’d like to give a shout out to the writer’s honesty at this point – many people wouldn’t admit that they were close to (or at) burn out.

But the self-awareness stops there, unfortunately.

We shouldn’t ever underestimate how much burn out affects our interactions with other people. We’re far more likely to come across as cranky, annoyed, unclear, fake or confused than what we think. If you think other people can’t tell that you’re struggling, you’re probably wrong. They probably don’t want to say anything though, because unfortunately that’s how people are.

While burn-out needs to be accepted, it also needs to be addressed.

Would you want to accept a new partner who was burned out before day 1?

If your comment about burn out is serious, then get help now. Stuff partnership – get help for your mental health, before your kids lose you for more than 70 hours a week.

Element #6 – Too Hard to Leave

I’m lost on this one.

If you’re the billing and business development expert that you say you are, what is so hard about leaving?

Given that you’ve said outright that the other partners of the firm are less financially useful than you, and don’t work as hard as you, don’t participate as much as you, and are sexist – why would you possibly want to stay in that environment?

If you DO get made partner, it will be with a bunch of people whose skills you don’t respect, whose achievements you don’t rate, and who you will believe are trying to undercut you because you’re a woman.

Don’t sound like a great aspiration to me…

Summary Without Sugar-Coating or the Sexism

I’m not such a jerk that I’d ever give people feedback in these fairly brutal terms, but trying to make it “sound nice” doesn’t do us many favours either and just results in confusion.

Discussions about character should take place with a trusted professional mentor or colleague, and that’s precisely what I think the writer should do in this case if she wants to stay at that firm.

Here’s the no-frills version of of the concerns that the partners are trying to get across to this lawyer:

  1. You’re difficult to speak with;
  2. People don’t think you care about them;
  3. You’re insular and self-focused too often;
  4. You’re unapproachable;
  5. You’re not spending time on internal relationship building enough;
  6. We’re concerned you won’t be able to build or hold together a team, and will cost us hundreds of thousands in recruitment fees;
  7. Your work habits worry us;
  8. Your manner around the office with other people concerns us;
  9. People in the firm don’t know you, and if they do they’re not sure if they like you.

This is pretty heavy stuff to communicate to someone candidly (even for lawyers), so perhaps it came as “smile more and go to more parties”.

The Best Advice if You’re in this Situation?

If you’re getting this kind of advice, rather than reacting, you need to respond.

First – find out what “smile more” actually means. Ask questions, get to the bottom of the issue that’s being identified – don’t just storm off with a bunch of assumptions because your pride is hurt.

Second – find a mentor or a sponsor (ideally on the existing partnership) who you can trust to be honest with you, and humbly ask them for some guidance on the process. Give them permission to be brutally truthful with you, and put your missile defense system in a box for the duration of your discussions.

What would you do? Would you call out the dogs of war, or go a different route? Let me know in the comments!

Happy Lawyering!

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