Studies show that although women have been entering the law in equal numbers to men for more than a decade, they make up just 23 percent of partners and 19 percent of equity partners. Why do so many women leave the legal profession at what should be the height of their careers? Last month, more than 160 lawyers gathered at Harvard Law School in November for the ABA National Summit on Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in Law to identify answers and plot a course to change the trends.
Sharon Rowen, a lawyer from Atlanta, said her research showed three reasons women leave the practice of law: work/life balance, unconscious bias, and the pay gap. I wish I could have attended the discussion. I hope someone pointed out that seeking work/life balance is the major reason for the pay gap, and that it is not unreasonable to view that as a trade-off that is both fair and reasonable. Rowan’s list also leaves off conscious bias that pervades society and clients regarding female lawyers, as well as law firm partners.
Iris Bohnet, professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, said some women suffer from “success fatigue,” and leave “because of a work culture that forces them to minimize important parts of their lives.” They ask themselves, “Can I bring my whole self to work?” and “Is this a place where I can thrive?” What she is saying is that a lot of women don’t find the law enjoyable, and that its stresses, patterns and requirements are more accommodating to men than women. In other words, law isn’t fun for a lot of women, while men, because of the nature of males, are more tolerant of it than women tend to be. I wonder if any panelist had the guts to come right out and say that? I doubt it. I bet most of them would deny it, because it’s politically incorrect to admit any gender differences, unless they involve female superiority.
I know a lot of lawyers. Most of my friends are lawyers, if they aren’t actors. It is fair to say that very, very few of them enjoy practicing law. They have to work too hard; they don’t see enough of their families, they don’t like their clients; they feels their values are compromised. They have been disillusioned by the realities of the profession and its failure to meet the idealized vision they perceived in law school. They realize most Americans who aren’t lawyers dislike and distrust them and their colleagues. They stay in the profession, most of them, as long as they do because of the money.
I also know a lot of lawyers who married lawyers, and most of those couples are now divorced. Some of the lawyers who married non-lawyers are also divorced, but nowhere near as many. I also know several couples where both partners hated what practicing law was doing to them, and agreed that one would cut back substantially or completely on legal work. Usually that partner was the female, and she was happy to do it.
Thus I would add “A lot of women hate being lawyers even more than men do, and get out of law because they can.” I doubt this was mentioned in the ABA conference either.
There is a reason why women gravitate to certain practice areas, leaving other areas almost entirely male. They choose to. Unfortunately, some of those practice areas that women feel are more rewarding or accommodating to their needs are also less lucrative, such as domestic relations or family law. The fact of the profession is that the big bucks comes from combat, meaning litigation and trial lawyering. Some women enjoy this, and are good at it. Most women lawyers don’t enjoy it, and there is one of those basic human biases blocking the path of those who do. People see men as the warriors. This is hardly surprising. They are bigger, in general, more aggressive, and have stronger voices…and they have, up until very recently, handled all of society’s roles requiring adversarial combat. Thus clients with a lot on the line that must be fought out in court tend to prefer that their champion look like this…
Popular culture has done all it can to change this stereotype. “Law and Order” cast at least 50% of its defense attorneys as female. “Bull” is doing the same now. It’s a misrepresentation of reality, though a benign one. The stereotype still holds, and there are reasons it holds. (It didn’t help that the most high profile case prosecuted by a woman, Marcia Clark, showed her losing on national TV when it was obvious that the defendant, O.J. Simpson, was guilty.) I worked for many years with the Association of Trial Lawyers of America. I could name the prominent and successful female members who were not in the Family Law Section: there were about ten of them. All of the other were men, and that hasn’t changed significantly in the twenty years since I worked there. Quick: name two prominent female trial lawyers. I can name one: Leslie Abramson, who represented the Menendez bothers. The fact is that the large and lucrative area of trial law and litigation is under-represented among women because 1) clients prefer men and 2) women tend to prefer other kinds of practice. This extends to arguing before the Supreme Court too.
No question about it, anti-female biases make practicing law especially miserable for women. My tough and brilliant sister, now retired and happier not practicing law than she ever was while practicing it, was by all accounts a terrific trial lawyer and litigator, mostly for the government. She was also ostracized for being as aggressive and effective as any man, called a “bitch” and “abrasive'” by some of her adversaries. My sister also was more devoted to her two children, one (her son) a lawyer and one (her daughter) on the way to being one, than she was to the law. As a result, she insisted on flex time and pert-time arrangements, which naturally contributed to the “gender pay gap” when she worked for a BigLaw firm.
I certainly believe that the special problems faced by women in the traditionally and still male-dominated profession of the law is a legitimate area for study and analysis, and that there are factors involved that can be mitigated. I am dubious that the law will ever be gender neutral in all respects, however, for the same reasons I doubt that martial arts competitions will be gender neutral.
I also see disturbing signs that the feminist approach to the fact that women might just not want to give their heart and soul over to legal practice and make reasonable trade-offs as a result is to label this a problem rather than a reasonable fact of life. I wrote about this recently here, when a Times feature by a Harvard Law professor (a lot of female lawyers prefer teaching to practice too) about the gender pay gap concluded
In sum, the gap is mainly the upshot of two separate but related forces: workplaces that pay more per hour to those who work longer and more uncertain hours, and households in which women have assumed disproportionately large responsibilities. Equality on this court requires a level playing field at home and in the market. There are many battles ahead. Unfortunately, they need to be fought at several levels.
I wrote, “In other words, society and human nature must be upended, forcibly if necessary, because absolute gender equality in pay and the elimination of all disparities in gender-based behavior must be achieved at all costs…and the costs include making people miserable.”
If more women are miserable in law firms and don’t want to make trade-offs that men are more willing to make, there is nothing wrong with that. After all, I made that same trade-off, and am glad I did, even if the bank account gets a bit thin this time of year.
Pointer: Still Spartan, who wrote, when sending me the links, “I’m sure you’ll butcher it in your analysis, but I’m convinced that unconscious bias is the real and major reason women flee private law firms.”