Where Did My Girls Go?

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?

Laura Docker

Laura Docker is a shareholder at Brackett & Ellis, P.C. where she maintains a busy litigation docket of medical malpractice defense, personal injury defense, employment law and school law cases. She lives in Fort Worth, with her husband and two wild sons Jack and Bo.

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This Post Has 23 Comments
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  8. I left. All seventeen of my fellow female associates at the firm where I started left. A vast majority of my female law school classmates left. Some went in-house. Some went onto other careers. Some opted to stay home to raise kids or to take care of aging parents. Some volunteer their time and their minds at our schools and in our communities.

    I do not know the myriad of reasons so many women have exited private practice; my reason for leaving big law changed about 5 times during my 5-year sabbatical. But what I do know is that all these women did not leave because they are not tough enough to handle it or because they are not smart enough; these female lawyers I am talking about are, in all honesty, some of the brightest people I have ever met.

    For me, I have come to terms with the fact that opting-out is going to happen; there is no preventing it. Women and men both do it; women more often then men, but even that is changing. What I struggle with daily is once an opt-out’s circumstances change (the aging parent dies, the spouse stops traveling weekly, the children head to school) can she get back into the practice of law? How can “we” practicing attorneys help these high-achieving opt-outs (women or men for that matter) opt back in again? Until we can rethink bigger issues of job-sharing, remote working and part-time work, I think instead of wondering “why do they leave” we should focus our energy on setting up on-ramps to help these opt-outs back into private practice. Hire them. Hire them on a freelance basis (shameless pitch). Hire them on a part-time basis. Hire them full-time. You may find that having stepped out these women/men are better attorneys with more contacts than they were at the time they originally opted out.

    1. Melissa – I think you raise such a great point, and I love the imagery of creating “on-ramps” for these attorneys making their way back to full-time practice. I am adding this very important issue to our list of topics here at LWL and will see if we can put together some blog posts specifically addressing this issue. Would love to hear from other attorneys who have re-entered the practice successfully to share stories and strategies to do so successfully, and also maybe some hiring partners about what concerns they have and how best to allay them.

  9. This is such an interesting phenomenon! Your sentence, “after all, my male attorney friends are getting married and starting families” hits the nail on the head. When I have to stay home with a sick kid or leave a little early to get someone to ballet or soccer, I feel guilty and assume others at work are annoyed. But, when a man stays home with a sick kid or leaves early to catch a game I applaud them for being a devoted father and family man. I am so baffled by this. Why the double standard? Is it the men creating it? Is it historical gender roles? Or is it me? Am I the one creating the guilt in myself? Am I imagining that others are annoyed?

    I tend to think that it IS me. Maybe I, as a competitive woman who wants to pretty much be kicking A in every situation and have everyone I encounter think I’m doing the exact right thing all the time (while unconditionally loving everyone I meet and also wearing cute shoes), allow this guilt to creep in. Maybe I am setting impossible standards for myself and then I am subconsciously telling myself that I am falling short. Maybe this is what causes women to fall away. Don’t get me wrong…we are fighting an uphill battle and we have literally thousands of years of gender inequality and stereotypes to fight against. Not to mention the lingering “old boys clubs” that I don’t care what anyone says still exist, the fact that
    “what’s for dinner” is seemingly still a question only a female can answer and no matter how far science has come we are still the ones that have to carry the babies. Sometimes, that is why the women fall off.

    But, I can’t help but think that also to blame is the impossible standards we set up for ourselves. We strive for perfection. And when we fall short, as we inevitably will, we feel guilty and we tell ourselves something has to change…and when that thing changes, we will finally be perfect. So, we scale back on hours, drop the fun happy hours with friends, hire a maid, etc. and then settle into our new “normal” and begin striving for perfection from that vantage point. I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure men don’t do this to themselves. Maybe this is why they are able to “better manage” career and family. They have lower standards. No offense guys. It’s something I’m extremely jealous of. Men don’t give a crap if their front porch has the perfect ratio of pumpkins to mums this time of year. This important issue is one I have been wrestling with for over a week. Truth.

    I’m not saying this is the ONLY thing at play here. There are SO many things contributing to the phenomenon. I just think this is one piece. And, of course, I’m blaming myself for my role in furthering the phenomenon. The perfectionist, competitive nature, guilt monster rises again.

    I suddenly just thought of an excerpt from Tiny Fey’s book Bossypants (great audiobook btw). Apparently Amy Poehler was doing a bit and Jimmy Fallon jokingly told her to stop because it wasn’t cute and he didn’t like it. Amy’s reaction was to whip around with fire in her eyes and tell him, “I don’t f-ing care if you like it.” A funny, shocking, and decidedly male thing to say. I feel like things would be easier if I could adopt a little more of that attitude. Perhaps I could allow myself a little less “do what people want and expect because I’m a good girl and that’s what I am supposed to do” and a little more “do what works for me and my family and don’t f-ing care if they like it.” Truth is, they probably don’t care as much as I think they do anyways.

    Someone please tell my therapist I don’t need our session this week. 🙂

    1. Seriously great insight Andrea. Your point about our perception of male attorneys vs. females when they take time out to be with their families (selfish vs. to be applauded) is true for me also, but I never thought of it before. And perhaps the anxiety I feel over it is somewhat self-imposed.

      1. This New York Times article discusses this exact point: the fatherhood bonus vs. the motherhood penalty.


        It’s a truly fascinating subject. Like you Laura, I was terribly naive about how my gender would play into my professional goals – why should the fact that I want to be a mom matter at all, to anyone, under any kind of circumstance? Unfortunately, those things do still matter. But I think discussions like these will help educate young female attorneys so that we know what’s in store for us.

      1. Haha thanks Teresa. I just saw your post about the shoes…I did that while I was pregnant once, so at least I could blame it on pregnant brain. The shoes looked way more different than yours did though and they had different heel heights!! Ummmm….what?

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