I have been a trial lawyer for 17 years. While I made partner at a reputable business litigation firm (my previous employer), it was not an easy path. In fact, I was the first woman in our office to do so.
Many talented women leave the profession before they are even eligible for partner, according to surveys. “The trend of significant attrition of women from law firms as their careers advance persists despite some positive, but small, increases in the representation of women at partnership levels over the last 15 years,” the National Association of Women Lawyers reports.
Women make up one-third of nonequity partners and less than a quarter of equity partners.
Despite lots of talk about improving gender equality in the legal profession, the number of women lawyers nationwide is barely edging up. It is not a result of the pandemic—in fact, research suggests the “she-cession” was not as bad in our industry as is widely believed. The problems are the same ones that have existed for years, but they are fixable.
Caregiving and Gender
While I am committed to my career, I am also committed to being a mom. It is important to me to be home for dinner and present for my kids’ games and recitals. That has meant avoiding a life of workdays that last 12 hours or more. In a work culture that prizes billable hours, that is a disadvantage.
So, while I worked full-time, I insisted on having a reasonable schedule, except during trials, when long hours are necessary. I chose to work at firms that valued work-life balance.
Although it took me longer than many of my male colleagues, I managed to work my way up due to the quality of my work product, attention to detail, and success rate in court rather than being the highest biller.
Many women lawyers, however, don’t have the chance to keep their careers while also having the family lives they seek. A survey of nearly 3,000 legal professionals found that “work-family conflict was the top factor pushing women in the legal industry to consider a different line of work.”
Recently, a different survey found that “most women quit big firms over culture, not family.” But that was a small, non-weighted survey of 199 respondents, and even so, more than 80% of respondents cited lack of flexibility or work-life balance.
It is sensible that those of us who choose to work fewer hours have longer paths to partner. The problem lies in the gender imbalance.
In this era, women and men want time with their families. But often, men are pressured against taking paternity leave or getting flexible schedules, and at times are even fired or demoted for prioritizing family.
As long as law firms, and other businesses, expect men to work past dinner time and be available around the clock, they will push more of the caregiving responsibilities onto women, since many parents are in heterosexual marriages.
I have experienced this firsthand while my husband and I juggle our careers and raising two children. He is not a lawyer, but many lawyers marry other lawyers. This means that when male lawyers are pushed to stay at work more and more hours, it is quite often female lawyers who end up having to slow down their careers.
There’s also another problem that, I’ve found, gets too little attention.
All too often, there is an unspoken assumption in our line of work that if a client needs immediate attention, a male associate is more willing to work late hours or on weekends.
While the firm may be subconsciously making these decisions in an attempt to accommodate their female associates, the result is that female associates do not have the chance to prove themselves with high-profile, highly valued assignments.
Studies show similar problems across industries, with women more likely to get so-called “office housework” instead of “glamour work.” In the legal profession, this problem can be especially acute for litigators.
An American Bar Association report found that “women continue to be overwhelmingly underrepresented in the courtroom—especially in the civil and complex litigation space.”
And former ABA President Paulette Brown has told the story of a litigator at her firm who needed an attorney to help on a case and went through all the men, then all the women, before going to her, a woman of color.
Throughout my career, I have pushed to make sure I got cases that allowed me to demonstrate my abilities while maintaining a work-life balance. And once I began managing associates, I made sure to delegate equally.
Of course, being partner in a law firm is not the only way to have a successful career. But the more law firms work to tackle the problems holding back women’s careers, the more top talent they—and our industry as a whole—will retain.
This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.
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Marianne G. Robak lives in Houston and recently joined Shackelford, Bowen, McKinley & Norton LLP. She handles business disputes, banking law, commercial litigation, fiduciary duty, and fraudulent conveyances. She has tried cases on matters including breach of contract, fraudulent transfer, partnership disputes, bank fraud, trade secret violations, and more.