Reflections on life, marriage, and a young woman who is constantly learning how much there will always be to learn!

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Case of the Missing Lawyers

Reading a NY Times article about the dearth of women partners in law firms, the author's framing of the issue made me feel like I was watching the manipulation of little plastic horses and kings during a game of chess.

Here's the problem, according to author Timothy O'Brien:

Although the nation's law schools for years have been graduating classes that are almost evenly split between men and women, and although firms are absorbing new associates in numbers that largely reflect that balance, something unusual happens to most women after they begin to climb into the upper tiers of law firms. They disappear.

Inquiring minds want to know: why?

Not surprisingly, Mr. O'Brien and his interviewees focus almost exclusively on external and structural reasons for this disparity. Following are a few quotes:

Although women certainly leave firms to become more actively involved in child-rearing, recent detailed studies indicate that female lawyers often feel pushed into that choice and would prefer to maintain their careers and a family if a structure existed that allowed them to do so.

Women lawyers also enjoy less access to the networking and business development opportunities that flourish in largely male playgrounds — think golf courses or football games — or through an invitation for a casual after-work drink with a male boss.

"Women aren't being adequately mentored, but I think male associates aren't particularly well mentored at all firms either, and there's pretty widespread dissatisfaction with that," said Meredith Moore, director of the office for diversity at the New York City Bar. "Having said that, I do think that superstar male associates are identified more clearly for informal mentoring than superstar female associates."

"Women are held to higher standards, and if they don't jump up and down like a man would at a meeting they aren't seen as partnership material...Women are less likely to get the attention than men. Some of this is left over from the sexual harassment cases from the 90's, but I think that it's more because of the fact that we don't look like men."

Ms. Lockwood's also exploring the impact of what she describes as the "maternal wall" on female lawyers. She says that this wall is built on the unstated assumption among male partners that women who return to firms after having children will automatically be less willing to work hard or will be less capable than they were prior to that — resulting in less-choice assignments or less-senior postings.

"People explain it simply as the fact that women have children, but so many other factors play into it," she says. "Women self-promote in a different way than men, and because women don't get their success acknowledged in the same way as men who more aggressively self-promote, it creates a high level of professional dissatisfaction for women.
"Saying these two words, 'I want,' is not something many women are used to doing," she adds. "They are not saying, 'I want the top bonus,' or 'I want that position.' They have a different style of self-promotion. But women need to learn how to be comfortable saying, 'I want,' and how to say it effectively."

"We are very accommodating with leaves and flexible schedules, and even with that we still lose women," says Edith R. Matthai, who founded a Los Angeles law firm, Robie & Matthai, with her husband in 1987. "I think the pressures on women from spouses, family, peers, schools and others is huge."

"I think the real solution is a reassessment of the role that women play in the family," adds Ms. Matthai, who is president of the Los Angeles County Bar Association. "One thing we need is a sense of shared responsibilities for the household and, most importantly, shared responsibilities for taking care of the kids." sounds like men and women and families and law firms and the practice of law itself all need to be substantially changed and manipulated in order to provide a more welcoming environment for women. Better yet...why don't women just try to act like men as much as possible (unless, of course, we can convince the men to act like women)? Then things would be much less complicated and more equitable.

Funny how the people...the men and women themselves, along with some allowance for the many ways that they might manifest diversity were left out of the equation. I don't suppose that men and women could just be...perhaps I shouldn't say this...inherently different? That they might often want to make different choices? That maybe most women (notice I didn't say "all") just don't find their hearts (notice I didn't say "brains") in the courtroom?

P.S. - By the way, why haven't I seen any hard-core campaigns for redressing the inequalities between men and women in the following jobs?: Flower-arranging, midwifing, being a nursery worker, nursing, First Man in the whitehouse ( I understand we've never had one in America! Men, you've been shut out!)

I also think, in the name of equality, that we should have programs and implement restructuring to incorporate more women into the following fields: Garbage collecting, working in the coalmines, construction.


Blogger Mrs. Wilt said...


What a great post! When my husband and I decided I would stay home from teaching, my principal had a fit! However, when a male teacher from our school decided to become a stay at home dad, everyone thought it was great.

Makes you go "hmmmm"...

Your blog's a blessing!

4:17 PM, March 21, 2006  
Blogger Mrs.B. said...

Erin, you're a hoot! (o:

Happy Feminist is blogging on this very article. Needless to say you both have drawn different conclusions. (o;

5:46 PM, March 21, 2006  
Blogger Erin said...

Mrs. Wilt - too bad that they couldn't have been at least a little bit happy for you at that school! I bet YOU'RE happy for you!:o)

Mrs. B- I'm sure we did! I'll have to read what Happy Feminist thinks.

1:47 PM, March 22, 2006  
Anonymous The Happy Feminist said...

Hi! I was glad to see your thoughts on this article.

The possibility of inherent gender differences affecting this is certainly possible, but it's hard to know for sure when there are so many ways in which law firms can be inhospitable to women. Clearly, women don't lack an interest in the law, since we go to law school in such great numbers.

I would never dream of demanding that the practice of law be restructured to accommodate women. I think welcoming women is a two-way street -- women lawyers have to make the effort to make connections with male mentors and male clients, while their male attorney should make the effort to include their female colleagues. As for billable hours, this is a horrible blight on the profession that affects everyone, although as I've argued, the effects tend to drive women away in higher numbers. I think both lawyers and clients would benefit by exploring alternative billing practices!

I think your point about dangerous or unpleasant jobs like garbage collection or mining is interesting. Of course, a lot of the MEN in those jobs would rather be in the white collar professions. For a lot of people, however, these dangerous or unpleasant jobs are the best paying jobs around. So women HAVE tried to integrate these. Integration into these types of jobs was and is a big theme in Ms. Magazine starting in the early '70s, and was the topic of the recent movie "North Country," starring Charlize Theron. There was also a recent hullaballoo in NYC due to the harassment of some female subway track inspectors. Finally, there are lots of good organizations around dedicated to helping women train for and become integrated into desirable blue collar jobs. (Like

2:44 PM, March 27, 2006  

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