Keeping Women Lawyers in the Profession: Why it Rocks! (and Sometimes Doesn't) to Be a Woman in Law

April 11, 2016

 

This article was originally published in the April/May 2016 Issue of NWLawyer magazine, the official publication of the Washington State Bar Association, available at http://nwlawyer.wsba.org/nwlawyer/april-may_2016/?pg=21&pm=2&u1=friend.

 

When I set out to write an article about women and the law, I wanted to focus on the encouraging, uplifting aspects of law practice for women, rather than the challenges. Most of us have heard stories about women lawyers who were mistaken for a paralegal or the court reporter, asked to perform administrative tasks to support their male counterparts, or had to endure sexist or inappropriate remarks in all manner of situations. I had hoped to dispense with those unpleasant anecdotes and write about why it rocks to be a woman in law. So, I blithely mass-messaged 50 or so of my female lawyer friends, colleagues, and acquaintances around the country, expecting to be bombarded with their enthusiastic responses. Instead, I got a few cryptic answers ("too much to say - will think about it and let you know"), a couple of people telling me that they had left the profession or work in a female-dominated area of law (family law or non-profit), and, mostly, crickets. That reaction should not have surprised me, since I have thought about leaving the law many times in the past decade that I have been in practice, and most of my conversations with women lawyer friends in the past five years have involved brainstorming ways to quit the law and still make a decent living. But it made me stop and think about why women are fleeing the profession, why I decided to stay, and, despite the obstacles, what can be done to help women create thriving and fulfilling legal careers.

 

Why are Women Leaving the Legal Profession?

 

Beginning in the early 19902, women comprised approximately 50 percent of all law school graduates, but, 15 years later, when most of those graduates should have been promoted to senior positions, women made up only 15 percent of law firm equity partners, chief legal officers, and tenured law school faculty ("the 50/15/15 conundrum"). According to the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL), which has studied the retention and promotion of women in law firms for the past 10 years, by 2015, those figures have not improved much, with women representing 23 percent of Fortune 500 general counsels, 37.5 percent of tenured faculty, and 18 percent of equity partners.[i] The promotion of minority women lawyers to these positions is even rarer, with the typical firm having 105 white male equity partners, seven minority male equity partners, 20 white female equity partners, and only two minority female equity partners.[ii]

 

There is also a large gender compensation gap in law firms, with female equity partners earning only 80 percent of male equity partners’ earnings (which is less than the 84 percent reported by firms in response to the NAWL’s 2006 survey), and female associates and counsels earning 93 percent of what their male counterparts earn.[iii] According to the NAWL, the typical female equity partner bills only 78 percent of what a typical male equity partner bills, despite working more hours (2,224 vs. 2,198 median hours in 2015), which raises questions about whether non-billable responsibilities, such as recruitment and associate mentoring, committee assignments, and pro bono hours, coupled with lower hourly billing rates may contribute to the disparity in women lawyers’ earnings.[iv]

 

In the WSBA's 2012 Membership Study, the top three reasons cited by female members for leaving the profession were the desire to work fewer or more flexible hours (28 percent), dissatisfaction with the legal profession (20 percent), and personal or family reasons (16 percent).[v] In addition, female WSBA members, particularly younger attorneys, report experiencing discrimination or sexual harassment in the workplace, including inappropriate behavior by supervisors, clients who preferred to work with male attorneys, and insinuations of weakness or incompetence.[vi]

 

In its 2015 Diversity Research Project Literature Review, the WSBA noted that although nearly 47 percent of law students are women, and some female attorneys have achieved high-profile positions, including U.S. Supreme Court appointments, “both academic and legal practice literatures suggest that the informal measures of gender diversity and inclusion … reveal that the profession is plagued by barriers to equity. In particular, scholarship suggests that the mechanisms that facilitate partnership within law firms as well as access to prestigious positions within the profession are still dominated by informal and gendered criteria which exclude women. The result is a ‘segmented’ profession where women, even though they may be highly present and visible within the field, lack real positions of power and institutional authority.”[vii]

 

Given these institutional and informal barriers to advancement, it is not surprising that women are leaving the profession in large numbers.

 

Why Did I Decide to Stay in Law?

 

My story is not unusual. I went to law school with a desire to work in legal services, which I did – alongside mostly female co-workers – for two and a half years after graduation, until I became frustrated by my inability to effect systemic change and realized that I would never save the world or pay off my student loans on a non-profit salary. So, I transitioned to private practice to work as a labor lawyer in a 15-attorney firm, litigating cases on behalf of workers and unions. For the next five and a half years, I battled large corporations with seemingly limitless resources in court to prove myself as a “real lawyer,” toiling away with my small team for 10, 12, or even 16 hours a day until I was promoted – as the second female and the only minority – to shareholder at my firm. Finally, exhausted and severely burned out, when my long-distance boyfriend at the time proposed, it didn’t take much to convince me to trade my hectic life in Los Angeles for a sabbatical in Seattle.

 

During my 15 months of soul searching while I awaited admission to the Washington bar, I explored my new city with my dog, bonded with my soon-to-be stepkids, took some classes at UW and considered applying for business school, tried yoga and meditation in an effort to learn to relax, got married, buried my father after a brief but intense battle with cancer, and informed anyone who asked that I was leaving the law. Because I didn’t know what else to do, I also read NW Lawyer to get a feel for the culture of the legal profession in Washington, volunteered with a non-profit that helps low-income “microentrepreneurs” start and grow their businesses, and had coffee with several experienced attorneys. Somewhere along my journey, I remembered the things that I enjoy about practicing law: creative problem solving, digging into a convoluted set of facts or an esoteric argument, and using the law to help my clients accomplish their goals.

 

In early 2015, I went back to work part-time at a small business law firm, but found that even a reduced schedule didn’t afford me the flexibility that I desired or the freedom to do the work that I wanted to do. Despite having the support of the firm partners, it was difficult to keep up with a litigation calendar when I was only in the office three or four days a week, I missed out on opportunities to work on interesting cases, even though I sometimes worked 60 hours a week, and I continuously felt like I had to provide reasons or apologies for my part-time status. So, last October, despite never planning to hang my own shingle, I started a firm with a former colleague from my old labor law firm in LA. She is also a married mother of two and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. With videoconferencing, cloud storage, and all that technology has to offer, we are able to work from our home offices most of the time and utilize (kid- and dog-friendly) co-working spaces in Seattle and San Jose when we need them, while balancing our professional and personal lives.

 

How Can Women Have Successful Legal Careers?

 

To all the women who have lived to tell their own horrible female lawyer anecdote or thought (however many times) about leaving the law, I offer these suggestions for creating a successful legal career that is right for you:

 

Redefine what success means to you and create your own path. My business partner, Nhu Le, says that “lawyers have a very rigid view of what a career trajectory should look like – you go from summer clerkship to court clerkship to associate to senior associate to partner. Anyone who diverges from that path is looked upon with suspicion.” All too often, women try to arrange their lives to better position themselves to play by traditional rules that handicap their ability to achieve success from the start. Many of us have heard stories of women who delayed starting a family until they were “set” in their careers, only to find that once they started a family, they could no longer sustain the grueling hours and ended up leaving the profession all together.

 

At some point, we have to accept that the rules will change, but they will change slowly, and, in the meantime, women need to define success on their own terms. For some women, this could mean that in some years – whether it is because they want to have children, train to climb Mt. Everest, or be a partner in their firm – the area of law that they choose to practice, the kind of hours they choose to put in, or the type of people they choose to work with will change to suit their lifestyle and ambitions at that particular stage in their lives. A woman who finds that the unpredictable hours of a litigator do not suit her young family may choose to work in another area of law or a different kind of firm that is better tailored to her priorities. Monique Hawthorne, who is in-house counsel for the adidas Group in Portland, Oregon and a married mother of two, advises women to “choose to work somewhere where work-life balance is valued and supported. I was an associate at a large firm for five years, and, no matter what I did, I never found work-life balance. That firm’s model for compensation and advancement did not lend itself to it.”

 

The opportunities for women to “downsize” their career objectives may not always be easy to find or navigate, but they are available. On the other hand, the reality is that a woman’s choice to take a less demanding career path, however brief, will often close off future opportunities to take on more ambitious work or responsibilities when and if she chooses to jump back into the game. As a result, for many women, starting their own business is the way to go. The WSBA reports that 38 percent of female members identify as solo practitioners, which is about twice the overall rate for members statewide.[viii] As women, we should take it upon ourselves to fundamentally change the way the legal profession operates, even if that means creating our own opportunities for compensation, transition, and advancement, and redefining expectations of what a rewarding and accomplished career looks like.

 

Stop worrying about the ever-elusive “work-life balance.” The idea of work-life balance evokes images of a tightrope walker teetering on a high wire, fighting with every step to remain steady, so that even attempting that balance is itself cause for stress. It is also a uniquely female concern. Anne-Marie Slaughter, international lawyer, foreign policy analyst, public commentator, and author of the article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” which is the most-read article in The Atlantic magazine’s history, says that the term is a misnomer. It is not a balance, but how women are able to advance their professional goals and, simultaneously, take care of those they love.[ix] At its most basic level, having work-life balance is being able to have both a personal life and a satisfying career, and the freedom to make choices that work for you without one side (life or work) overtaking the other. In her book, Unfinished Business, Slaughter says that “[i]n a work culture in which commitment to your career is supposed to mean you never think about or do anything else, asking for flexibility to fit your work and your life together is tantamount to declaring that you do not care as much about your job as your co-workers do.”[x] The solution, according to Slaughter, is “[r]eal flexibility – the kind that gives you at least a measure of control over when and how you work in a week, a month, a year, and over the course of a career.”[xi]

 

Find a mentor and support other women lawyers. As part of its 2012 Membership Study, the WSBA found mentorship to be a significant factor affecting job satisfaction and career stability, particularly for women and attorneys in solo practice.[xii] With more women starting their own firms, and doing so earlier in their legal careers, whether by choice or as a matter of necessity due to barriers to entry faced in other employment settings, mentorship for newer attorneys is becoming an increasingly important factor in whether women remain in the profession. With the unique challenges facing them, it is critical for young women lawyers to create a strong network of female role models who can better relate to their frustrations and help them navigate difficult situations. Finding a mentor with a similar background or who practices in the same area of law can be extremely valuable to a newer attorney and help her overcome feelings of self-doubt, loneliness, stress, and anxiety.

 

Instead of taking themselves out of the game, women need to encourage each other to remain in the profession and find ways to integrate their careers into the kind of fulfilling life that they want for themselves and each other. Those who stay in the law will ultimately rise to more prominent leadership positions and, inevitably, create more opportunities for future generations. In the meantime, the legal profession must change to fit many different kinds of women and their spectrum of life choices or risk repelling women in droves, and, with that, the unique perspective and valuable skills that they bring to the profession.

 

[i] National Association of Women Lawyers, 2015 Ninth Annual National Survey on Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms, at 1-2, available at http://www.nawl.org/d/do/343.

[ii] Id. at 6.

[iii] Id. at 7.

[iv] Id. at 3.

[v] Washington State Bar Association, 2012 Membership Study, at 80, available at http://www.wsba.org/~/media/Files/About%20WSBA/Diversity/WSBA%20Membership%20Study%20Report%202012.ashx.

[vi] Id. at 93.

[vii] Washington State Bar Association, 2015 Diversity Research Project Literature Review, at 3, available at http://www.wsba.org/~/media/Files/About%20WSBA/Diversity/Achieving%20Inclusion/WSBA%20Diversity%20Research%20Project%202015.ashx.

[viii] WSBA 2012 Membership Study at 60.

[ix] Chicago Tonight, “Anne-Marie Slaughter: Thinking Differently About ‘Work-Life Balance’”, available at http://chicagotonight.wttw.com/2015/10/12/anne-marie-slaughter-thinking-differently-about-work-life-balance.

[x] Slaughter, Anne-Marie, Unfinished Business (2015) at 61-62.

[xi] Id. at 60-61.

[xii] WSBA 2012 Membership Study at 66.

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