Women in law firms

The WSJ Law Blog has an interesting post asking whether women lawyers are reaching a crisis point.  The MIT Workplace Center has issued a report titled “Women Lawyers and Obstacles to Leadership,” which states that of the 1000 Massachusetts lawyers surveyed, 31% of female associates and 18% of male associates had left private practice, as had 35% of female associates with children and 15% of male associates with children.  As might be expected, the report criticized heavy billable hour requirements, inflexible schedules including the lack of real part-time options, and “a lack of appreciation for the need to balance work and family.”

The WSJ Blog then goes on to ask whether readers would encourage their daughters to enter the law and whether readers agree with the report’s summary that “nothing is changing” concerning women’s role in law.  And as is often the case, much of the fun of the post lies in the comments.

Steve Seckler of the Counsel to Counsel blog has a different take on the report in his post Women Are “Staying” in Droves.  Reviewing the same report, and having attended a presentation on it, Steve leads with the statistics that almost 80% of women who leave law firm practice stay in or return to the workforce and more than 50% stay in the legal profession.  The issue, as Steve sees it, is focused on women’s decisions to leave law firms, resulting in the much-quoted statistic that only 17% of large law firm partners are women.   (Robert Ambrogi treats the issue similarly in his post The Uneven Partnership Track.)  Fascinating to me is the email attached at the end of Steve’s post from Sheila Statlender, a clinical psychologist who is a member of the Boston Bar Association’s Standing Committee of Work/Life Balance, in which she fantasizes about women and their “male supporters” walking out of their firms for a couple of hours or a day to protest current conditions for women and to support/brainstorm/educate around strategies to address those conditions.  Good reading, though I’m not sure I’ll be holding my breath for enactment.

This issue presents a variety of challenges: opportunities for women vs. men in career and family; biological imperatives and societal response to them; sociological stereotypes; law firm economics; family economics… The list could go on and on.  Looking at the questions raised on the “big picture” level, it seems to me that what we’re seeing is the challenge that arises whenever someone takes on a one-dimensional role that is (or is expected to be) all-encompassing.  It’s the perception that a lawyer who’s a Big Firm Partner (or Associate) can’t also be a Mother, because those two roles conflict.

Perhaps I’m feeling unduly idealistic today, but I wonder whether demoting these roles to being aspects of an integrated, whole person might be a step in the right direction — with a hefty dose of reconciling the whole person to the realities of law firm and personal economics.  Not to say that finding that integration is an easy process or without challenges and trade-offs, but most questions tend to move toward solution when posed as A and B rather than A or B.  I also will take a stand for the proposition that working fathers are as entitled to the same personal/professional integration as working mothers, and the “societal stare decisis” that holds otherwise (to quote a brilliant turn of phrase by a “2L Woman” commenter on the WSJ Law Blog) deserves to be overturned.

But, when the measuring stick for so many is profits per partner, doesn’t the dollar determine the destiny?

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  1. […] over a decade, only 17% of the partners in large firms are women.  (If this is news, please see this post, which provides background information on the gender disparity.)   MacEwan reviews data that […]

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