It’s no secret that in large law firms, men fare far better than women. All one needs to do is review any website of any major law firm (or simply walk the halls) to see that most partners are men.
Still, I was shocked by an article published in the Washington Post last month, entitled “Large law firms are failing women,” which conveyed some alarming statistics:
“Women are enrolled in half of law school classes and work alongside men in nearly equal numbers as associates. And yet, women today are twice as likely as men to leave law firms for reasons like work-life balance. What’s more, in a survey of more than 17,000 law firm associates, women rated their firms’ culture, their job satisfaction and their compensation (to name just a few) much lower than their male counterparts did. This may provide some insight behind the statistic that only 4% of the 200 top U.S. law firms have female, firm-wide managing partners.”
We women go from making up 50% of a law school class, to 4% of managing partners.
There is clearly a problem here.
The fact is, women, for the most part, are still the primary caregivers of their children in this day and age. And law firms certainly don’t make it easy. Biglaw is notorious for brutal hours. For a lack of work-life balance. For having a “sweat shop” mentality. So surely, the answer is to change the policies, right? To provide flexible work schedules and reduced hours and generous maternity leave packages? Maybe then it will be easier for women to stay?
Ironically, large law firms actually have some of the best benefits for women. Many provide for 18 weeks paid maternity leave, and up to 6 weeks for men. Many have policies for part time work, or telecommunicating, and some have gone so far as to have provisions for women to take a leave of absence, with their jobs held for them during their time off. Some law firms even have child care centers on site, and nearly all have some sort of arrangement whereby attorneys have access to back-up childcare should their child be ill.
So why aren’t these policies working?
“As an adviser to corporate women’s networks, I am hard pressed to name an industry that simultaneously has more progressive policies and yet more of an old-school culture than the large law firm environment does.”
You can change the rules, but you can’t change the culture.
As a former law firm associate myself, I can attest to this phenomenon firsthand. It doesn’t matter what the attorney manual says, or what the Director of HR has granted you in terms of part time hours. In a law firm, you’re expected to always exceed what is asked of you. (We all know those minimum billable hours requirements aren’t real minimums.) So when you are headed out the door at 5:00 pm on a Monday night to relieve your nanny, and you pass a partner in the hall, you can almost see the look of disgust on their face.
They never left at 5pm on a Monday night when they were an associate. And you know what? Most other associates don’t leave at 5pm on a Monday. Who do you think you are? Just because you have a child, you are somehow now “special”? Somehow by virtue of being a mother, you get to climb the associate ranks with sleep and flexibility and some semblance of a life? That’s not what it’s like to be an associate. That’s not what it’s like to be at a law firm, for God’s sake. That’s just not how it’s done.
There are written rules, and then there are rules that are unspoken. But ironically, it’s the unspoken rules that come through loud and clear.
And that’s why the women leave.
So what’s the solution? The author of the Washington Post article argues that the answer is to get more women in upper level positions, in high ranking committees, and to have women be the co-creator’s of the firm’s policies.
I disagree, to a certain extent. Because not all women are fans of work-life initiatives either. Perhaps they don’t have children, or perhaps they do, but they did not have the opportunity to (or chose not to) avail themselves of part time policies or generous maternity leaves. In fact, I have found that the latter type of women partners are particularly hostile to female associates who try to maintain a work-life balance.
Instead, I think it’s important to focus on three things:
1) Trying to retain women who have opted for flexible schedules. All too often, these women work for a few years at a reduced schedule, and then find the pressures of biglaw life, and the unwritten rules, to be too much for raising children. They ultimately leave the law firm, and as a result, the very attorneys that are sympathetic to female attorneys with children, and could help reshape the culture, are absent.
2) Trying to stop thinking of this as a women’s issue. While it’s true that most attorneys that opt to go part time or take a leave of absence are women, there is no reason that it should be the case. The bias against men availing themselves of these “soft” policies is even greater than it is for women. In fact, though many law firms offer men 6 weeks of paternity leave, can you really think of anyone who has actually taken it? I am betting not. Family friendly policies should apply equally to men and women, and both should be encouraged to take advantage of them.
3) Trying to be honest. It doesn’t help anyone if flexible policies are implemented, only to be scoffed at behind closed doors. The political correctness of the issue encourages silence, which only breeds resentment and hostility. Law firms should have an open dialogue about the policies they advance, perhaps by creating a permanent “Work-Life coordinator,” in the same way they employee a “Director of Diversity.” They should hire outside consultants that can help them adopt new ways of thinking, and who can point out, in financial terms, why it is advantageous to implement these policies and put forth an effort to retaining more women.
This ship has obviously sailed for me. It has been three years since I left my firm, and I am unlikely to ever go back to a law firm again (though I’d happily serve as a work-life coordinator!). But I still feel passionately about this issue.
Because 4% is freaking ridiculous.
Originally published on March 11, 2014 on But I Do Have A Law Degree.
Shannon Forchheimer graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 2005, where she served as a Senior Editor of the Journal of Constitutional Law. Upon graduation, Shannon joined the New York office of Skadden Arps as an associate in the Litigation Department, where she represented clients in complex commercial litigations and government investigations involving RICO, federal securities laws, ERISA, and breach of contract. In 2007, Shannon relocated to Washington, DC, and joined the law firm of Dickstein Shapiro, where she continued to focus her practice on complex litigation, and represented government contractors suing the Government for breach of contract and CERCLA violations.
After the birth of her second son, Shannon left law firm life. While at home full-time with her young sons, Forchheimer started a popular blog, “But I Do Have A Law Degree,” which was voted one of the “Top 5 Lawyer Mom Blogs” by FindLaw’s Legal Blog, Greedy Associates.
Shannon founded Montage Legal Group’s East Coast division with Chelsea Beser in 2012. Shannon lives in Bethesda, Maryland with her husband, three young sons, and a very hyper dog, Couscous.