Women Lawyers Face Double Whammy

Women Lawyers Face Double Whammy

Women lawyers often have the added challenge of balancing significant responsibilities at home in addition to those at work. As the saying goes, “Law is a jealous mistress.” The profession is demanding of all of its participants, but the burden seems especially heavy for women lawyers. In 1989, for the first time, the plight of women lawyers was examined. Both the State Bar of California Women in Law Committee and the National Law Journal conducted groundbreaking studies. Not surprisingly, the California committee found that 88 percent of the respondents reported a “subtle, pervasive gender bias in the profession,” and two-thirds believed they did not have as much opportunity for advancement as did male lawyers. The National Law Journal, in its December 11, 1989 issue, reported that huge percentages of women lawyers sacrificed time with friends and family, gave up their outside interests, and delayed marriage and children. This is corroborated by the fact that more female lawyers in California are childless, single, or divorced than their male counterparts. A 1995 Harvard Women’s Law Association survey, Presumed Equal: What America’s Top Women Lawyers Really Think About Their Firms, revealed a double standard: The respondents in that study believed that the only way a woman could succeed in the legal profession was to remain unmarried and certainly childless.

A decade later, not much had changed. A 2005 study of women lawyers by Defense Research Institute, the largest defense bar association in the country, found that more than 70 percent experienced gender bias in the courtroom, over 65 percent believed there was a glass ceiling for women attorneys, and more than 61 percent considered leaving the legal profession because of gender issues such as the pressure of raising a family. Making matters worse, women lawyers generally don’t have the support at home that male lawyers enjoy. While nearly half of married male lawyers had wives who didn’t work outside the home, 93 percent of married women lawyers had husbands who worked full-time. And, today, almost another decade later, the situation remains essentially the same. Of women lawyers interviewed for a Project for Attorney Retention (PAR) 2012 study, 65 percent of those practicing in-house and 74 percent in private practice said their "commitment to personal and family responsibilities" was the top barrier to advancing their careers.

Consequently, women lawyers face a double-whammy: Despite much progress over the past several decades, women still shoulder the primary responsibility for the home and children, while hindered by limited professional choices. Those pursuing a career in a traditional law firm often must choose between the fast track to partnership — which is easier on women with no “encumbrances”— or the “mommy track,” which in many cases translates as second-class citizenship. Even where parenting policies such as maternity/paternity leave, job sharing, part-time, flex-time, telecommuting, and the like are offered, taking advantage of those policies may permanently stigmatize a lawyer so meaningful career advancement is no longer an option. Although the NALP Directory of Legal Employers shows that nearly all of the nation’s law firms have part-time policies, very few lawyers availed themselves of such family-friendly programs. The 2012 PAR study also revealed that lawyers in part-time positions are highly stigmatized in the industry. A majority of female attorneys interviewed said they wouldn’t take part-time jobs out of fear that their status, promotions, and pay would suffer.

To retain their women lawyers, law firms must find a middle ground between the fast track and the mommy track. This entails modifying existing organizational structures, re-examining outdated attitudes, creating more flexible models for career development, and accepting those alternatives as being viable and valuable blueprints for career success. Law firms need to take a long view and look at the contribution of women over the span of a 20- to 30-year career rather than focusing on the short term during childbearing years.

Making the legal profession more family friendly benefits not only women lawyers and their families, but also all attorneys by creating a more humane work environment and the possibility of pursuing a more balanced life. Furthermore, such an examination of the basic structures of the profession may lead to other changes to enhance the ability of all lawyers — regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or disability — to thrive. In “New Partners 2000,” a special pull-out section of The Recorder, February 2000, in an article entitled “Building the 21st Century Law Firm,” the author states, “Truly promoting diversity means examining every aspect of the firm’s organization, including recruitment, training, salary structures, work hours, corporate culture, marketing, and community service . . . with the goal of creating a work environment where different types of people can flourish.”

Valerie Fontaine
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