Law School Discussion

Are these really the Best 50 Law Firms for Women?

Are these really the Best 50 Law Firms for Women?
« on: October 02, 2007, 09:09:26 PM »
The revolution of falling expectations
By Nancy Gertner

In the 1960s, social critics spoke about the "revolution of rising expectations," describing the phenomenon in which succeeding generations of Americans expected to do better than their parents and the conflicts that resulted when they did not.

If the latest issue of Working Mother magazine trumpeting the "50 Best Law Firms for Women" is any indication, we are now in the midst of "the revolution of falling expectations," which will have its own serious consequences.

Working Mother in an altogether commendable effort to monitor the progress of women in the largest firms ranked them by various measures, including the percentage of women equity partners and non-equity partners, and the number of women in management positions.

Several Boston firms made the grade with the percentage of women equity partners ranging from 10 to 21 percent. Lawyers Weekly noted the results in a "People in the Law" section dubbed "Honors."

While these firms should be lauded for their commitment to women's progress, the "Honors" label has to be put into context. And that context is disheartening, to say the least. Can any firm truly be recognized as "the best" when the percentage of women equity partners is below the Massachusetts average, which is 17 percent women equity partners? (All but three of the listed firms are below that number.)

For years we believed that once law school graduation rates substantially equalized between men and women, the pipeline of women associates would lead to equality in partnerships and managerial ranks. That pipeline has been gushing for decades, but profound disparities between men and women remain.

Twenty years after women began graduating from law schools in equal numbers to men, women still do not comprise close to 50 percent of the partners; attrition threatens even the meager gains attained.

In Boston, with its excellent law schools, the numbers should be even more favorable to women's advancement. By 2008 we would have expected parity in the national legal community and, especially, our own. We ought to be demanding it now.

Recent data suggest that more women than men are entering Boston law firms at the associate level. In 2003 and 2004, the numbers were 46 percent men and 54 percent women. What do we tell these women about their future legal careers? Do we say that no matter how many women are entering as associates, nothing will change? Only a few will make it to the highest echelons of firm life?

The question that should be raised by the figures in Working Mother, and raised loudly, is why so few women have made it to the equity partner level? To be sure, many of us have been asking that very question for some time.

In 1998, Lauren Stiller Rikleen, then the president of the Boston Bar Association, organized a task force on "Professional Challenges and Family Needs," which produced a nationally recognized report noting the need for "individualized work family plans" and support for "family work" alternatives.

In 2000, the Women's Bar Association released a groundbreaking report titled "More Than Part-Time," which studied the powerful effect of reduced-hours arrangements on the retention, recruitment and success of women attorneys in law firms.

In 2003, in an address before the WBA, I called for urgent attention to the relative lack of women in leadership positions at firms. I linked the lack of women in leadership to the conflicting demands of law firm practice and women's child care responsibilities. I challenged the WBA to create a commission "to work on what we need to do now to make the workplace safe for mothers and fathers." The WBA, BBA and MBA formed the Equality Commission and worked with the MIT Workplace Center to study the problem.

More recently, the Equality Commission has issued the MIT Workplace Center report, "Women Lawyers and Obstacles to Leadership," that begins to tell the story: "The loss of women to leadership in the law follows directly from a failure in the profession to respond imaginatively to a dual need for time time for work and time for families."

And it concludes: "uilding time for families into law firm practice is not a general institutional norm. The availability of flexible arrangements for family care is indeterminate, unpredictable. Finding a way to combine law firm practice and care for families is at present an individual responsibility, and it generally carries professional penalties. Change in these practices is essential if women are to advance to leadership in the legal profession."

The attrition rate for women is not without serious consequences to the law firms in particular and to women's progress in the profession in general. Working Mother noted that firms lose $300,000 per third-year associate lost and replaced. The MIT report found that 30 percent of the women who enter law firms leave, while only 20 percent of the men do, and of those women who became equity partners, 15 percent leave.

And beyond the financial cost to the firms is the profound cost to the profession the future of women's continued progress in law as the ranks of senior women are depleted.

We understand Working Mother's goals to monitor women's progress, to create benchmarks and we applaud its efforts. And we likewise applaud the firms it "honored" for doing better than most, but no one reading the article or the Lawyers Weekly item should be remotely satisfied.

We most assuredly are not.

Judge Nancy Gertner sits on the U.S. District Court bench. This article was written on behalf of the Equality Commission.


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Re: Are these really the Best 50 Law Firms for Women?
« Reply #1 on: October 03, 2007, 04:13:56 AM »
As a woman, I personally feel that no job needs to make special accommodations for women. Being a woman is not a disability. Women aren't making partner at law firms because they are choosing, through their own free will, to pursue other priorities such as motherhood. Those are noble priorities, but I don't see why should anyone be rewarded with a promotion and a leadership position for not putting in the work required. To make partner, there's a standard in place. It's not discriminating against anyone willing to put in the time and the work. And if you're not willing, it's not the right job for you. Move on.

I get really tired of people whining that this or that isn't fair. Should we get lax on Navy Seals training so more people have the opportunity to become a Seal? How about if we lower the admissions criteria for law schools so more people have a chance to attend? You know, in the interests of fairness.

This isn't an issue of allowing Mommy and Daddy time off to go tend to a sick kid, attend a parent-teacher conference, medical leave, maternity leave or a private place to pump milk. Those are reasonable accommodations (which inevitably stick non-parent workers in the uncomfortable position of having to make up for their co-workers absences, but that is another issue for another time). If you aren't willing to put in the time, you don't deserve the job, whether you are a man or a woman. You made the choice to have children. They are the higher priority and they should be the higher priority, unless you decide to give them away or hire someone else to raise your kids. Live with it. I don't see where any workplace should lower their leadership standards and start admitting anyone as a partner or C-level officer just because that group has decided they are under-represented based on their own free choices to avoid the work.

just dot

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Re: Are these really the Best 50 Law Firms for Women?
« Reply #2 on: October 05, 2007, 05:44:08 PM »
Interesting article.

I would look at it from a more capitalist angle, though.  While I don't believe that private businesses should be forced to make concessions for parents it might be in their best interest to do so.  I think if left alone many businesses (including law firms) will realize that some of the best and brightest available to them might be parents who aren't willing to sacrifice their entire lives for the sake of their job.  Is an overworked, burned-out employee who puts in 70 hours a week to the detriment of their personal life necessarily better at their job than a flex-time mother who comes to work happy?  Maybe, maybe not.  Either way if that mother is very good at her job and is willing to take less money in exchange for flexibility then a company or firm might see the benefits of hiring her.  How productive are miserable employees?

I'm a parent so I guess I'm hoping for a job where I will have some flexibility.  I don't want the government to force anyone to give me a job and then force them to give me time off.  I'm willing to take less pay for the luxury of working a more reasonable schedule.  I think motherhood has taught me a lot about successfully multi-tasking and prioritizing and I can also bring those skills to the table.  Also, I think by definition most mothers who put their children first aren't putting success in their job first anyway.  If they value time with their children enough they will accept that they must concede a certain amount of money or success in order to bargain for that time.  You can't have it all and quite frankly I wouldn't want to.  Money isn't everything.

Re: Are these really the Best 50 Law Firms for Women?
« Reply #3 on: October 06, 2007, 08:58:32 AM »
Dotlyn, I agree with you. I don't care if law firms choose not to make concessions for their employees, both male and female, who want to work more flexible hours, but I think they are very short-sighted not to. As the article said, law firms lose $300,000 per 3rd year associate that leaves. They invest a lot in their employees and it seems like a bad business decision to just let them go. I do think flextime and other arrangements that allow a better work-life balance are becoming more common. A couple of the larger firms I interviewed with mentioned their flextime options right off the bat in my interview, without me asking about it (I never actually ask about things like that, but I was happy they mentioned it).

Re: Are these really the Best 50 Law Firms for Women?
« Reply #4 on: November 11, 2007, 12:00:19 PM »

I somewhat agree, and was extremely irked that when I asked about advancement opportunities for women, I received chatter about part-time.  I do not wish to work part-time!!! I want to know that they're addressing the large inequality between male and female associates.

And this is where I differ from your assumption that it's a pure meritocracy.  The 17% figure isn't due just to the fact that some women choose to leave the profession to have families; it's also due to historical discrimination against women.  Read, for instance, about Justice Ginsburg's and Justice O'Connor's experiences trying to get a job out of law school. 

Fortunately for out generation, things have vastly improved, and open discrimination is no longer allowed.  However, you can hardly assume that a legal change will drastically alter people's attitudes, and certainly not immediately. 

At this point, I've been to a lot of big NY firms to interview and to numerous other receptions. There were certain firms that felt like "old boys' clubs."  At one reception, a partner answered my questions to the guy standing next to me.  At another, a lawyer asked one of my male friends where the strip clubs where in our city.  Another lawyer made derogatory jokes about his wife.  Making partner is as much about the ability to build social networks as it is about legal acumen, and it's no wonder than women are disadvantaged in such environments.