Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Girl Law

I’ve been having a little bit of a career freak out lately. You see, lately I realized that I’m now over 30. And a woman. And a litigator. That means sometime in the next ten years my life will dramatically change. I don’t exactly know how and I don’t exactly know why. But if you look around, you’ll notice that there simply aren’t any women litigators over 40. So the clock is ticking.

Okay, so I exaggerate a little bit. But only a little bit. The truth is, women litigators over 40 are few and far between. Look around your own firm. At my current firm, there are only two women lawyers, and we’re both associates (and one is a transactional attorney). My last firm – an Am Law 100 firm in a big city – had one woman partner in litigation. And she was non-equity. In our entire office of 100 lawyers we had in total only three women partners. Considering that since about 2001 law school classes have been made of up 50% women, these percentages of women partners are down right embarrassing. At a minimum, the ranks of junior partners should be a lot more made-up. Which begs the question, where have all the women lawyers gone?

The Wall Street Journal’s The Juggle asked this question not long ago. But it didn’t really come up with any real answers. The article noted that despite making up 34.4% of all lawyers last year, women made up only 15% of equity partners - “a level that hasn’t budged in the past five years.” It then attempted to rationalize these numbers by blaming a gender-bias in pay and firm’s use of contract attorneys. http://blogs.wsj.com/law/2010/11/09/study-where-have-all-the-women-lawyers-gone/

While I don’t doubt that unequal pay and the use of contract attorneys accounts for some of the problem, I found the comments to the article to be much more in tune with the problems of real life law firms. Aside from a few comments posted (hopefully) solely to inflame, the majority of the comments indicated that women leave the law because women aren’t valued in the law.

In my opinion, one commenter got it exactly right: “The reality is that law firms are unfriendly to women. They are run by (largely white) men who like to be surrounded by cute young women mentees while the learning curve is still high, but not experienced talented women to work with as equals.” In my own experience, I’ve seen how it goes. Smart, talented women with the best credentials get the jobs. Within the first year or two, they experience some incident of sexual harassment – often by the lawyer directly overseeing them. Whether the woman lawyer reports the incident or handles it herself the result is the same – nothing happens to the equity partner. The fact is any harassment lawsuit brought by a second-year associate is cheaper to settle than the loss of a rainmaker’s multi-million dollar book of business. And the message is clear: you’re valuable, but not that valuable.

Usually two or three years later, this message is repeated -- most usually when the woman associate announces she’s pregnant. For some reason, the minute a woman lawyer announces she’s expecting a baby, law firm partners go into crisis mode. To law firm partners, baby means maternity leave and maternity leave means a vacation and everyone knows that any lawyer who takes a vacation isn’t really dedicated to her work. So the associate is written off. Of course, maternity leave isn’t a vacation, and the woman has six (or nine, or in my case, 3) months left of time that she needs to bill, but work immediately stops flowing her way. She’s left to scramble to find work to bill time before the baby arrives, and plagued by doubts about how she’ll get any work once she returns from 8 or 12 weeks away. No words may be exchanged, but the lack of work speaks volumes: you’re valuable, until you have a baby.

Assuming that the woman lawyer puts up with these games, and makes it to her ninth year (and skipping some other convincing examples along the way), the woman associate is again reminded of her wayward value when she finally goes up for partner. In that process, every vacation, sick day and maternity leave will be used against her. There will be talk of how her 8 or 12 week maternity leave left her less experienced than a male who didn’t take a break. There will be talk of how she sometimes works from home to care for her sick kid. And there will be talk about whether the other partners think she’ll have any more kids -- as if having more children could render someone less partnership material. In the end, the woman will probably make junior partner. After all, most law firms need to promote women for their reporting statistics. But when the woman is promoted, she’ll be reminded of all of her “time off” and “special accommodations.” The message from the firm is that she’s valuable because she’s a woman, not because she’s a good lawyer.

I realize that this example relates only to women lawyers who have kids. (I’ll be the first to admit, I don’t have any idea what happens to the women lawyers without kids). But I’ve seen it happen so many times to so many different women with so many different talents that I believe it to be the true nature of the law firm experience.  Women lawyers don't ever expereince "real law", but instead are subjected to a career of “girl law" in which they are repeatedly told that they will never succeed on their merits.  So they leave.  That's where all the lawyers go -- anywhere else. 

The legal profession needs something more than women's iniatives and work/life balance programs to fix the wrong that is "girl law."  But until men who truly value women as professional equals start running law firms, women will keep leaving. 


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