This past weekend’s New York Times article Why Do So Few Women Reach the Top of Big Law Firms? (Timothy O’Brien, 3/19/06) makes me ask the question “Why Should We Care?” The article describes the oft-cited problem of why women aren’t making it to the top at large firms or why they prematurely leave, blaming the usual suspects such as lack of mentoring, ingrained gender discrimination and even billable hours.
For starters, I’m not sure that I understand the problem here. Large firms are profit making entities, where billables and rainmaking count more than anything, for anyone. Large firms apply billable requirements across the board. Sure, large firms aren’t willing to accomodate women who want to work part time – but they don’t accomodate male attorneys who seek a more balanced lifestyle either. In fact, if male attorneys asked for the same types of schedule reductions that their female counterparts demand, they’d probably be bounced out of the firm even more quickly. If women attorneys are willing, as some of those cited in the article, to come back to work full time after 6 weeks of maternity leave, to hire full time nannies and skip dinners with their kids, the gap would shrink. Most women lawyers aren’t willing to do that – and more power to them for that. Indeed, many of my solo male colleagues weren’t willing to make those sacrifices either – which is why they’re working for themselves as solos instead of tethered to a desk in a big fancy New York or DC or Chicago office.
The other problem I have with this genre of articles is that they make it seem as if biglaw is the “be all and end all” of a legal career. In truth, only a small percentage of lawyers practice at large firms and real law is made day by day by solo and small firm practitioners and the clients we serve. But for some reason, when a woman heads her own firm, it’s still regarded as an inferior position to serving as one of dozens of partners at a large firm. In fact, these articles almost never make mention of the hundreds of women making it on their own as heads or partners of solo and small law firms. (I highlighted this problem here).
I know it’s not PC to say so, but ultimately, the problem with large firms is that everyone, male and female, is held to an equal standard: generate more billables, bring in more revenue. It’s an inhumane standard, sure, but it’s gender neutral. The real success stories aren’t the women who continue to whine for accomodations at large firms that aren’t available to men, but rather, the women who go out and create their own firms so that they can have the best of both worlds, on their own terms.