Denver Bar Association
July 2007
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What Women (Lawyers) Want: Good work, respect, flexible options

by Janet Ellen Raasch

Today, women and men graduate from law school in equal numbers and are hired by law firms as associates in equal numbers. And then things start to fall apart. By the time they are mid-level associates, women are leaving law firms — for a wide variety of reasons — in significantly greater numbers than men.

A recent article in The National Law Journal states: "As big law firms struggle to retain women lawyers and boost them into leadership roles, they’re losing many to contract positions, smaller firms, in-house jobs, government posts and legal-aid careers that women lawyers say give them more control over their work and personal lives."

Those who remain are under-represented in the management and partnership ranks. In a study of 82 firms conducted in 2004 by the New York Bar Association, women accounted for one-third of the eighth-year associates at these firms, but only one-fifth of the individuals who made partner that year. In spite of decades of intense focus on this issue, only 17 percent of partners at today’s major law firms are women.

What is it that women lawyers want and expect from their professional and personal lives, and how does this differ from the desires and expectations of their apparently more successful male colleagues in law firms?

This question was posed for discussion to a group of 90 women — two-thirds of them lawyers — at the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Legal Marketing Association’s June program, moderated by law firm consultant Merrilyn Astin Tarlton.

Differences evident even in law school

"Although women arrive in law school with basically the same credentials as their male classmates, they have a very different law school experience," said Astin Tarlton.

Tarlton quoted extensively from a 2005 speech on the status of women in law by Elena Kagan, dean of Harvard Law School: "Women law students are less likely to speak up in class. They graduate with fewer honors. And when asked to assess their own abilities, they give themselves far lower marks than men do on a range of legal skills.

"Here’s an interesting statistic," quoted Tarlton. "According to the Harvard student survey, 33 percent of men considered themselves in the top 20 percent of their class in legal reasoning, while only 15 percent of women did. Women also gave themselves lower marks in their ability to ‘think quickly on their feet, argue orally, write briefs and persuade others.’ Reading this list, I had to shake my head: What exactly is left?"

Tarlton continued from Kagan’s speech: "Studies at other law schools have found very similar trends. In the disturbing words of one female law student from the University of Pennsylvania, ‘Guys think law school is hard, and we just think we’re stupid.’"

This high level of self-criticism does not automatically disappear with graduation; it accompanies many talented women graduates to the job market — and perhaps contributes to their level of dissatisfaction once they get there.

Differences continue in law firms

According to results reported in the After the JD study (sponsored by the NALP Foundation and the American Bar Foundation), disparities between female and male law school graduates show up in their choice of practice setting after graduation.

"Women are more likely to work in government, public interest and education," said Tarlton, "perhaps because they want to ‘help others’ more than men do and because they expect a more collegial and flexible work environment in these settings."

But also there are early differences among women and men who choose to go into private practice. "Just a few years into their careers, men are far more likely to engage in informal networking and earn more money than women," said Tarlton. "At large law firms, the median salary earned by men after three years was $15,000 higher."

A study by The Center for Work-Life Policy found that the biggest reasons women lawyers quit are because they are dissatisfied with work or feel stalled in their careers. Although family obligations are a concern, they are perceived as manageable when women are satisfied with their work assignments and see progress in their careers.

"According to the After the JD study," said Tarlton, "young women lawyers are far more dissatisfied than men with every aspect of their jobs — except the work itself. Their dissatisfaction extends to relationships with colleagues, recognition by colleagues, control over work assignments and deadlines, compensation and opportunities for advancement."

What women (lawyers) want

With this information in mind, participants at each table were asked by table facilitators to discuss "what women (lawyers) want." After these conversations, results were shared with the entire group. The following is a summary of the comments.

Many women enjoy the private practice of law. They would gladly stay with a firm if only the firm offered them more options, and treated those options with respect rather than dismissiveness. Although men can focus all their attention on career development, many women must multi-task, balancing professional and family obligations.

The women felt that this is not "bad" or "good"; it simply is "different." Why is being on a "mommy track" considered such a negative? Because of this negative perception, many talented women are afraid to ask for options like a flexible schedule. They continue to work a grueling schedule, become burned out and eventually leave the firm. Everyone loses.

Women who want to make partner need options that allow them to stay on the partnership track — even if they need to cut back temporarily because of family obligations. Women who do not want to make partner, but enjoy the private practice of law, need options that allow them to continue to work at a firm on a contract, salaried or even telecommuting basis.

Participants were adamant that women in law firms are willing to work hard and put in long hours. Because of family obligations, however, they must be able to predict those hours so that they can make arrangements for child care and other family obligations. Unlike their male colleagues, they cannot always stay late at the last minute. This does not make them bad lawyers; it should not be held against them.

And what’s more ...

The women participating in these discussions said that they want responsibility and equity in job assignments — an equal opportunity to demonstrate their abilities and succeed within the firm. They want this respect not only for those on the partnership track, but also for those on an alternative track.

Although many firms offer flexible schedules in theory, many of the participants felt that these were "false choices" and that, under pressure, hours quickly start to creep up again under these arrangements — without a similar increase in compensation.

The women commented that in an age of telecommunications, physical "face time" is not as important as it once was. Clients can speak with their lawyers 24/7 via cell phone and good legal work can be done seamlessly from a remote location — including from a home office. In addition, the women said that they would appreciate time-management training to help them manage their practices more efficiently.

Finally, young women lawyers want to see role models in law firms — examples of women who are successful at their law careers and successful as parents — so that they can see evidence that it can be done. Many of them feel isolated at their firms. They want more collegiality and mentoring. They are frustrated by senior women attorneys who have an "I pulled myself up by my bootstraps and you should too" attitude.

Traditional law firms are very macho environments, governed by the billable hour, up-or-out partnership tracks, long hours, competition and aggressive self-promotion. Across the board, the women felt that firms would benefit from a model that recognized and valued the qualities that women bring to the table — the value of the work rather than the number of hours it took to complete it, alternatives to the traditional partnership track (and alternative ways of making partner), work/life balance, a more cooperative approach and teamwork.


LMA will have a program later this year to continue this discussion, focusing on how it makes good business sense for law firm managing partners and practice group leaders to care about and react to what women lawyers want. For more information about LMA, visit http://www.rockymountainlma.com.

Janet Ellen Raasch is a writer and ghostwriter who works closely with lawyers, law firms and other professional services providers — to help them achieve name recognition and new business through publication of articles and books for print and rich content for the Internet. She can be reached at (303) 399-5041 or jeraasch@msn.com.


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