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Why Do So Few Women Reach the Top At Large Firms – And Why Do We Care?

by Carolyn Elefant on March 20, 2006 · 30 comments

in Big Law/Small Law, Biglaw Practice and Issues, Work/Life Balance & Women

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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.

  • http://www.gulbransen.net/preaching/2006/03/post.html Preaching to the Perverted

    http://www.gulbransen.net/preaching/2006/03/post.html

    The Blawg world is all atwitter over this NYT piece about women as partners in BIGLAW, Why do so few women reach the top of big law firms?. There’s some interesting commentary out there, but I think one person gets it more than any other commenter I’ve…

  • http://www.gulbransen.net/preaching/2006/03/post.html Preaching to the Perverted

    http://www.gulbransen.net/preaching/2006/03/post.html

    The Blawg world is all atwitter over this NYT piece about women as partners in BIGLAW, Why do so few women reach the top of big law firms?. There’s some interesting commentary out there, but I think one person gets it more than any other commenter I’ve…

  • eartha651

    I’ve posted your exact sentiments about large firms on a non-legal blog that cited this article. All the same, large firms are about access to power and influence, and men still have more of it than women do. I still can’t see a Fortune 500 company going to a small firm, or choosing a la carte from a number of boutique practices, so the large firm isn’t going to go away. That world doesn’t interest me, nor does it interest most normal people, but the lack of woman partners in large firms, even if they forego parenthood and do everything the boys can do, says something about how power is brokered in our country and who rules.

  • eartha651

    I’ve posted your exact sentiments about large firms on a non-legal blog that cited this article. All the same, large firms are about access to power and influence, and men still have more of it than women do. I still can’t see a Fortune 500 company going to a small firm, or choosing a la carte from a number of boutique practices, so the large firm isn’t going to go away. That world doesn’t interest me, nor does it interest most normal people, but the lack of woman partners in large firms, even if they forego parenthood and do everything the boys can do, says something about how power is brokered in our country and who rules.

  • eartha651

    Add to that the fact that a brilliant African-American male attorney who WANTS to make partner at a large firm doesn’t have a prayer in hell of doing so.

  • eartha651

    Add to that the fact that a brilliant African-American male attorney who WANTS to make partner at a large firm doesn’t have a prayer in hell of doing so.

  • http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/ethicalesq/2006/03/19#a6246 f/k/a (formerly ethicalEsq)

    even NYT scapegoats the billable hour

    getting rid of billable-hour quotas will not solve the real problem, which is the desire of law firms (partners and associates) to make more and more money.

  • http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/ethicalesq/2006/03/19#a6246 f/k/a (formerly ethicalEsq)

    even NYT scapegoats the billable hour

    getting rid of billable-hour quotas will not solve the real problem, which is the desire of law firms (partners and associates) to make more and more money.

  • Jay Gatsby

    You make some very good points and are one of the very rare writers who actually exposes a dirty little secret regarding the gender gap in law firms (and in business for that matter) — women who choose to have kids choose not to work as long or as hard as their male colleagues. As a result, such women should not be heard to demand more accommodations of their lifestyle choice from their employers. Rather, like a man who decides that spending time with his kids is more important to him than simply making money, women should go out and create a work environment that best suits their lifestyle choice. Refusing to promote someone who doesn’t work the same hours or bring in the same amount of business isn’t discrimination — it’s business.
    Also, I think many men are also looked down upon when they leave BIGLAW to open their own solo practices. Regardless of gender, those who choose to go solo are even more business-oriented than their former BIGLAW colleagues. Why? Because they have to hustle their own clients, rather than receive cross-marketing referrals within the firm or simply bill time to institutional clients.
    I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have someone who knows how to make rain as my partner, than someone who simply knows how to service clients. Perhaps BIGLAW has it right in who it decides to make partner. Those who can bring in the business are far more valuable than those who provide service; there are hundreds of high-quality attorneys that can provide the services a client needs, but there aren’t nearly as many who can convince a client that it needs new counsel.

  • Jay Gatsby

    You make some very good points and are one of the very rare writers who actually exposes a dirty little secret regarding the gender gap in law firms (and in business for that matter) — women who choose to have kids choose not to work as long or as hard as their male colleagues. As a result, such women should not be heard to demand more accommodations of their lifestyle choice from their employers. Rather, like a man who decides that spending time with his kids is more important to him than simply making money, women should go out and create a work environment that best suits their lifestyle choice. Refusing to promote someone who doesn’t work the same hours or bring in the same amount of business isn’t discrimination — it’s business.
    Also, I think many men are also looked down upon when they leave BIGLAW to open their own solo practices. Regardless of gender, those who choose to go solo are even more business-oriented than their former BIGLAW colleagues. Why? Because they have to hustle their own clients, rather than receive cross-marketing referrals within the firm or simply bill time to institutional clients.
    I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have someone who knows how to make rain as my partner, than someone who simply knows how to service clients. Perhaps BIGLAW has it right in who it decides to make partner. Those who can bring in the business are far more valuable than those who provide service; there are hundreds of high-quality attorneys that can provide the services a client needs, but there aren’t nearly as many who can convince a client that it needs new counsel.

  • http://www.gerryriskin.com Gerry Riskin

    It is irrelevant whether you are correct or not. What matters is that firms that do not meet diversity standards are already losing work to those that do meet them. Now, to your point, if I can attarct work in a diverse firm but not to a non-diverse firm, then there is your economic driver once again. So, I can’t judge here

  • http://www.gerryriskin.com Gerry Riskin

    It is irrelevant whether you are correct or not. What matters is that firms that do not meet diversity standards are already losing work to those that do meet them. Now, to your point, if I can attarct work in a diverse firm but not to a non-diverse firm, then there is your economic driver once again. So, I can’t judge here

  • http://basquette.typepad.com basquette

    Big(f)Law has always been touted as the be-all, end-all, as you put it, Carolyn. It also leaves out things like government work, contract work, boutiques, Main Street/smallfirm/general pratice lawyers – everything, in fact, other than the white-shoe corporate world. It’s rampant in a book I started reading recently (but dropped in disgust) that attempted to tackle the issues of women in law, but only looked at Ivy League law school grads and their attrition/acceptance rate at the large corporate firms. Thanks for that, but it’s rather like opining on the state of the union by looking at Rhode Island alone.

  • http://basquette.typepad.com basquette

    Big(f)Law has always been touted as the be-all, end-all, as you put it, Carolyn. It also leaves out things like government work, contract work, boutiques, Main Street/smallfirm/general pratice lawyers – everything, in fact, other than the white-shoe corporate world. It’s rampant in a book I started reading recently (but dropped in disgust) that attempted to tackle the issues of women in law, but only looked at Ivy League law school grads and their attrition/acceptance rate at the large corporate firms. Thanks for that, but it’s rather like opining on the state of the union by looking at Rhode Island alone.

  • http://www.hrlawyersblog.com/2006/03/women-in-workplace-having-it-all-or.html Christopher McKinney

    n my personal opinion, the female attorneys I have worked closely with appeared to be more likely than men to be attuned to the fact that large law firms, generally speaking, are horribly mismanaged. They run on an institutional model that is 200 years old, which serves neither its employees nor its clients as effectively as it could. Despite firms’ best efforts, true mentoring in large firms is all but non-existent. (It really isn’t that surprising that most large firm partners are not good mentors, being as they didn’t have good mentors themselves.) Most large law firms do not really encourage associates to develop strong social ties with existing clients. In fact, many partners see any such attempts as threats to their existing client relationships. And large law firms are one of the last true bastions of rigid top to bottom authoritarian management style.
    Again, based solely on my personal esperience: These are all issues that tend to bother female attorneys a great deal. Frankly, they bother a lot of male associates a great deal as well. But for whatever reason, a higher percentage of the males stay. Perhaps, the media and the researchers should be looking into why a that is.

  • http://www.hrlawyersblog.com/2006/03/women-in-workplace-having-it-all-or.html Christopher McKinney

    n my personal opinion, the female attorneys I have worked closely with appeared to be more likely than men to be attuned to the fact that large law firms, generally speaking, are horribly mismanaged. They run on an institutional model that is 200 years old, which serves neither its employees nor its clients as effectively as it could. Despite firms’ best efforts, true mentoring in large firms is all but non-existent. (It really isn’t that surprising that most large firm partners are not good mentors, being as they didn’t have good mentors themselves.) Most large law firms do not really encourage associates to develop strong social ties with existing clients. In fact, many partners see any such attempts as threats to their existing client relationships. And large law firms are one of the last true bastions of rigid top to bottom authoritarian management style.
    Again, based solely on my personal esperience: These are all issues that tend to bother female attorneys a great deal. Frankly, they bother a lot of male associates a great deal as well. But for whatever reason, a higher percentage of the males stay. Perhaps, the media and the researchers should be looking into why a that is.

  • http://www.hrlawyersblog.com/2006/03/women-in-workplace-having-it-all-or.html Christopher McKinney

    In my personal opinion, the female attorneys I have worked closely with appeared to be more likely than men to be attuned to the fact that large law firms, generally speaking, are horribly mismanaged. They run on an institutional model that is 200 years old, which serves neither its employees nor its clients as effectively as it could. Despite firms’ best efforts, true mentoring in large firms is all but non-existent. (It really isn’t that surprising that most large firm partners are not good mentors, being as they didn’t have good mentors themselves.) Most large law firms do not really encourage associates to develop strong social ties with existing clients. In fact, many partners see any such attempts as threats to their existing client relationships. And large law firms are one of the last true bastions of rigid top to bottom authoritarian management style.
    Again, based solely on my personal esperience: These are all issues that tend to bother female attorneys a great deal. Frankly, they bother a lot of male associates a great deal as well. But for whatever reason, a higher percentage of the males stay. Perhaps, the media and the researchers should be looking into why a that is.

  • http://www.hrlawyersblog.com/2006/03/women-in-workplace-having-it-all-or.html Christopher McKinney

    In my personal opinion, the female attorneys I have worked closely with appeared to be more likely than men to be attuned to the fact that large law firms, generally speaking, are horribly mismanaged. They run on an institutional model that is 200 years old, which serves neither its employees nor its clients as effectively as it could. Despite firms’ best efforts, true mentoring in large firms is all but non-existent. (It really isn’t that surprising that most large firm partners are not good mentors, being as they didn’t have good mentors themselves.) Most large law firms do not really encourage associates to develop strong social ties with existing clients. In fact, many partners see any such attempts as threats to their existing client relationships. And large law firms are one of the last true bastions of rigid top to bottom authoritarian management style.
    Again, based solely on my personal esperience: These are all issues that tend to bother female attorneys a great deal. Frankly, they bother a lot of male associates a great deal as well. But for whatever reason, a higher percentage of the males stay. Perhaps, the media and the researchers should be looking into why a that is.

  • http://www.legalsanity.com/whats-the-problem-439-big-laws-missing-women-the-dialogue-continues.html Legal Sanity

    Big Law’s missing women: the dialogue continues

    I

  • http://www.legalsanity.com/whats-the-problem-439-big-laws-missing-women-the-dialogue-continues.html Legal Sanity

    Big Law’s missing women: the dialogue continues

    I

  • http://www.mythago.com/blog mythago

    large law firms, generally speaking, are horribly mismanaged
    So true.
    Great post, but I think you miss that the ‘billable standard’ is not always applied equally–certainly not to senior associates.
    Perhaps things have changed since my law-school days and my mother’s career at a BigLaw firm, but there are plenty of male partners who see ‘time off for childcare’ as a permanent red-flag that Female Associate isn’t and can’t ever be a serious contender.

  • http://www.mythago.com/blog mythago

    large law firms, generally speaking, are horribly mismanaged
    So true.
    Great post, but I think you miss that the ‘billable standard’ is not always applied equally–certainly not to senior associates.
    Perhaps things have changed since my law-school days and my mother’s career at a BigLaw firm, but there are plenty of male partners who see ‘time off for childcare’ as a permanent red-flag that Female Associate isn’t and can’t ever be a serious contender.

  • http://www.legalunderground.com/2006/03/women_law.html Evan Schaeffer’s Legal Undergr

    http://www.legalunderground.com/2006/03/women_law.html

    MUCH DEBATE ABOUT THE LEGAL GENDER GAP . . . This week, the Coast to Coast podcast is taking on the gender gap in the legal profession. The show follows last week’s New York Times article, Why do so few

  • http://www.legalunderground.com/2006/03/women_law.html Evan Schaeffer’s Legal Underground

    http://www.legalunderground.com/2006/03/women_law.html

    MUCH DEBATE ABOUT THE LEGAL GENDER GAP . . . This week, the Coast to Coast podcast is taking on the gender gap in the legal profession. The show follows last week’s New York Times article, Why do so few

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