I remember the first time I truly felt naïve. It was right before my third year of law school and I was having a conversation with two very good law school friends of mine. One of them was a few weeks pregnant. On-campus interviews were coming up and we were discussing where we were applying, where we’d love to get interviews, and, of course, what we were going to wear. It was during that conversation that my newly-pregnant friend expressed her fears about her pregnancy showing during these interviews. She was afraid, and it turns out rightfully so, that interviewers would be able to tell that she was pregnant and immediately write her off.
When I was a young girl, it never occurred that I shouldn’t want to be a lawyer. Being a girl didn’t make me feel any less able or likely to be successful in a career as a lawyer. While men still dominated the profession, growing up in the 1980s there were enough pop culture references to women lawyers to make it seem like a reasonable aspiration. Thank you Claire Huxtable and Christine from Night Court! In college I excelled and never considered that my gender might play a role in my success. I was a student, defined more by my affinity toward language (and procrastination), than my ability (or inability) to apply eyeliner on the shuttle bus from my dorm to class. In law school, the girls I went to school with were excelling, and were clearly represented among the top ranks of our class, whether by their grades, leadership on law review or advocacy competitions.
I clerked with a class of students that included more women than men, and was hired into a class of three women and one male attorney. Fast forward to seven years later, I became a shareholder in my firm and suddenly I looked around and found myself one of only five females amongst the twenty-plus shareholders at my firm. As a civil litigator, I began to notice the dominance of men in my profession – at bar events, CLEs and even in the courthouse. Suddenly, I’m one of only a few women at the party. When did that happen?
While I’m prone to overdramatizing, in this instance the numbers back me up. A recent survey conducted by the ABA noted that women make up only 17% of equity partners in law firms. When you start to focus on real leadership positions, the numbers look even worse. Only 4% of managing partners among the 200 largest law firms are held by women. But the problem is not just in law firms, less than 20% of general counsel positions among Fortune 500 companies are held by women and women comprise only 1/3 of the judiciary.
So the question remains, why don’t the numbers add up? Law schools are graduating more female than male attorneys, and have been for years. Women are nearly equally represented in their associate years, but somewhere along the way the women start disappearing (not altogether, but you know what I mean). The easy answer is work-life balance, right? Women get married, have babies and reprioritize. I’m sure there are some who think us girls simply can’t hack the hours or the stress or the pressure of law practice and retreat to the sanctity of our families. I can’t say I haven’t considered it. I’ve got a husband and two kids who love me no matter how many hours I bill. Not all walk away from work altogether, there is also attrition to non-legal careers, some naturally stemming from an area of legal expertise, but others are departures from the practice of law altogether.
While these are examples of where these ladies may be ending up, they do not provide a real explanation for what is happening and why. After all, my male attorney friends are getting married and starting families. They get frustrated by the pressures of the practice just as much as my girlfriends and I do. But they don’t make the decision to press on or change course knowing that their peers are twice as likely to make the choice to do something else (or nothing) with their law degree. This is such a complicated issue, and one I have spent many hours discussing with girlfriends over lunch or a glass of wine. Is it just the physical pressures of motherhood? The societal expectations of women? The structural obstacles of firm or corporate life that uniquely disfavor women? Is it the remnants of the good old boys network that still prevents access? Or is it simply a matter of time? I know a lot of young bad@ss women who I count among the brightest and hardest working attorneys I have met. Perhaps, it is just a matter of letting this generation rise up in mass numbers through the glass barriers those gals who came before us took such efforts to break down.
These are tough and complicated questions without easy answers. But I think it’s important that we are talking about them. What are your thoughts?