Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Women in Law Firms

Today's Boston Globe features a disheartening article entitled "Many Female Lawyers Dropping Off Path to Partnership." The article discusses the results of a survey due to be released today at 4:00 PM by the MIT Workplace Center in association with the Equality Commission, which includes representatives from the Women's Bar Association, the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Boston Bar Assocation; the Commission was formed in response to a 2003 address by U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Gertner, "who called for urgent attention to the relative lack of women in leadership positions in the law." The survey concluded that "female lawyers continue to face intractable challenges in their attempts to become partners, causing them to abandon law firm careers--and the legal profession entirely--at a dramatically higher rate than men." The summary of the report is here.

Approximately 1,000 Massachusetts lawyers responded to the survey. Thirty-one percent of female associates left private practice, compared with 18 percent of male associates. For associates with children, the percentage of women who left private practice rose to 35 percent, compared with 15 percent. The authors of the study attribute the dropout rate to the "combination of demanding hours, inflexible schedules, lack of viable part-time options, emphasis on billable hours, and failure by law firms to recognize that female lawyers' career trajectories may alternate between work and family." A little more than half of women who leave law firms move to legal positions at organizations that are more family friendly: "nonprofit groups, government agencies, or corporations." However, the rest abandon the law altogether.

I guess the statistic that stood out the most for me was the one that indicated that women who practice law must choose between working and having a family. "Senior male lawyers are more likely than their female peers to be married or living with partners (99 percent vs. 84 percent, respectively) or to have children (80 percent vs. 68 percent)."

Concludes Mona Harrington, program director of the MIT Center, "Nothing is changing." I think that is correct--law firm culture has not changed, despite the influx of so many bright, young female associates. Either the women change to meet the expectations of the firm (which are based on the male attorney with a stay-at-home wife who raises their children) or they have to leave, demoralized and disheartened about not using the degrees they worked so hard to get. I have always told my daughter that she could have it all (although I have to confess I have never urged her to attend law school), and now I'm wondering if I'm misleading her.


Betsy McKenzie said...

Great post, Marie! The article is well worth reading. Following up on the article is a lot of chat on the AALS Women in Law listserve -- Emory University Law School hosted a program on the issue last year, and is planning to host another this year, on this topic. My terrific colleague at Suffolk, Kate Nace Day is mentioned as a leader in this field. I am so proud of Kate! Here is a bit more detail:
Emory Law hosted a conference this past March 31 called No More Early Exits (title inspired by Jill Schachner Chanen's article about women lawyers of color, on the cover of last August's ABA Journal). It was attended by almost 200 women lawyers, law students, teachers (including Kate Nace Day from Suffolk) and recruiters. We had plenary and breakout sessions covering all of these issues affecting women's attrition in the legal workplace, led by dozens of law firm partners and other distinguished lawyers. The goal was to focus attention on solutions.

Betsy McKenzie said...

Marie, I personally know a number of librarians and LRW faculty who are women in the situation mentioned in the MIT report you link to. Many of our law librarians choose this field because of the lower stress and more relaxed hours, and the same is true of many LR&W instructors. I know I have felt that library work has been a haven where I could shelter and earn a reasonable living while having time to be a good parent and spouse. I don't know what would happen to the stream of law librarians if firms wised up and really began to honor the family needs of young associates. Maybe there would be far fewer law librarians than we have now.

Re your comment about teaching your daughter she could have it all, see my rather sad post from May 11, 2006, at

Anonymous said...

One thing that I always find disheartening about such discussions is the suggestion that women leave law firms because they have children, and then need a different schedule. I know many female attorneys who do not have children, but have left for other reasons. The above reasoning suggests that it is the difference in women's lives outside of their firms, rather than the way they are treated in firm that causes them to leave. I was an attorney at law firms for almost ten years, and I saw over and over again that women attorneys simply get treated differently than men, especially when they reach the senior associate levels. Women are often given less interesting projects with much lower profiles than the men. Women are often given fewer resources to do their jobs. Women do not get the same mentorship that men receive, and therefore, do not progress as quickly. Women's work is often judged more harshly than men's. Women are often interrupted in client meetings and not give the same access to clients. I also saw many of my colleagues doing twice as much work as the men and receiving half the recognition. Women get pushed out of law firms because of how they are treated and how stressful that makes their lives. In order for things to improve in law firms for women, and for law firms to keep the talented pool of women who work for them, both men and women need to realize that this issue is more complicated than a scheduling issue. Men need to become more conscious of their gender assumptions and accurately assess ways in which they may be treating women differently. Men also need to work on communicating with women more effectively. Women need to learn to seek out mentors, to negotiate effectively for the best assignments and equal resources, and to gain recognition for their work. All of these issues need to be addressed in order for women to succeed to the partnership levels at law firms.