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Where Are All The Women Partners?

Pat Schroeder Leads Program on the Glass Ceiling and the Maternal Wall In Law Firms

By Linda Bray Chanow

A recent NALP report announced that 87% of law firm partners are still men. As a new female associate at a large District of Columbia law firm, I am not sure which disturbed me the most -- the fact that only 13% of the partners are women, or that the title of the press release read "Presence of Women and Attorneys of Color Continue to Rise at Large Law Firms."

In November, members of the local legal community gathered at the Brookings Institution to discuss the notable lack of women among law firm partnerships. The event, A New "Lost Generation"? 87% of Law Firm Partners are Still Men, was sponsored by the WBA and American University’s Project on Gender, Work and Family. Former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder, National Partnership for Women & Families President Judith Lichtman, law professor and author Joan Williams, and New York civil rights attorney Steven Eckhaus addressed tough questions regarding the slow advancement of women in the profession.

Cynthia Calvert opened the discussion with this question: "The old excuse – that women were new to the law and there just weren’t enough women lawyers with enough experience to be partners – can’t be used any more. For two decades, law schools have been graduating larger and larger numbers of women, and since the mid-1980s, about 40% of law school graduating classes have been women. We are bright, we are hard-working, and we have enough experience – so why aren’t we sitting in greater numbers at the partnership table?"

Why do so many women attorneys drop out of practice? This question has disturbed me for some time. Beginning in my second year of law school and after a hard look at the statistics, I realized that my chances of actually having a long-term career in a law firm are slim. Even less likely is the possibility that I will make partner at a large law firm. This knowledge forced me to take a hard look at what I need to do to have a successful law practice because I did not go to law school, and rack up close to $100,000 in debt, only to leave the profession in a few years.

From the outset of the New Lost Generation, it was clear that the presenters all linked family responsibilities with the essence of "womanhood." Pat Schroeder spoke candidly of her experience while in the United States House of Representatives and explained that the nation’s leaders do not have a sense of the struggles facing today’s working families. She noted that while "only 1 in 10 families in the nation look like a Norman Rockwell painting, for those in elected office, 1 in 10 does not." She expressed her exasperation that "when I say childcare, they think babysitting" and noted that she and her husband "both want a wife."

Women attorneys report the same disconnect with most male partners who have "a flow of family work from stay-at-home spouses" reported American University Law Professor Joan Williams. Williams recently authored Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It (Oxford University Press 1999), which details the implications of a workplace designed around the bodies and life patterns of men. Specifically, statistics show that nearly two-thirds of mothers of childbearing age do not work full-time, full-year. Only 7% of mothers work overtime, defined as more than 49 hours per week.

Mothers are excluded from lucrative work as a direct result of the fact that women continue to have primary responsible for family work, according to Williams. The gap between the wages of mothers and "others" is increasing. While women without children earn 90% of men’s salaries, mothers earn a mere 60%. Women are being financially penalized for having childcare responsibilities. Williams stressed that in a society where most women become mothers, these patterns are inconsistent with a commitment to gender equality.

This finding has important implications for women lawyers who are mothers. Most legal work requires significant overtime, and women who "want" to work "only" 40 hours per week (or less) must either quit or seek out part-time status. Typically, working part-time has resulted in removal from partnership track, receiving less desirable assignments and office space, and reduced opportunities for business and professional development. According to Williams, this "marginalization" of mothers has resulted in the "hemorrhaging of women from law firms."

Law firms are becoming increasingly concerned about the low number of women and minorities within their ranks. Firms face hard questions from recruits and clients. A non-diverse attorney pool can be a barrier to recruiting women and minorities. Fierce competition has firms struggling to attract new clients. The increasing diversification of clients and their business markets has prospective clients seeking firms able to meet diverse needs.

A lack of diversity affects not only a firm’s ability to attract attorneys and clients, it also leaves law firms vulnerable to suits under the Equal Pay Act and Title VII. Steven Eckhaus discussed his recent and successful ground-breaking case involving discrimination on the basis of parenthood. He told the story of Joanne Trezza, an attorney at the Hartford Insurance Company and a mother, was passed over for promotion in favor of attorneys who did not have children. He argued that "women with kids are treated differently from women without kids" and "Title VII protects all women, not just some" -- and the court agreed.

There is no business justification for requiring attorneys to work the excessive hours required at most law firms, stated Williams. She cited an internal study performed by accounting firm Deloitte & Touche, which found that when a professional resigned, the firm lost 150% of that professional’s salary. Based on this dramatic finding, the firm implemented alternative schedules that required less hours and offered proportional advancement in an effort to retain their female professionals. The result of these retention efforts: $14 million in average yearly savings.

A recent study by the Boston Bar Association, Facing the Grail: Confronting the Cost of Work-Family Imbalance (available at http://bostonbar.org/workfamilychallenges.html), which details the high cost of attrition at law firms, lends further support to the exaggerated emphasis on the billable hour as a measure of profitability. The study noted that while firms generally measure partner revenue by the number of billable hours brought in by the individual partner, firm expenses are distributed equally among all partners. The relationship between high billable hours and attrition strongly suggests that partners who require high billable hours are also creating higher expenses. The study found that this process of measuring revenue individually and expenses generally, severely skews firm profit models and thus produces the current cycle of high salaries, high billable hour requirements, and high attrition.

Firms that have been making genuine efforts to recruit women attorneys report frustration at the high levels of attrition. According to Williams, "law firms are faced with two choices: one is illegal, and the other is to change working conditions." Williams advocates for part-time schedules that offer proportional pay, proportional benefits and proportional advancement.

"Here we are at the turn of the Century, still thinking we have to be everything," exclaimed Judith Lichtman, President, National Partnership for Women & Families, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that promotes fairness in the workplace and policies that help women and men meet the often competing demands of work and family. She recognized that men did not manage to do it all: "men gave up family." Lichtman’s organization is leading the way in legislative efforts to promote gender equality, including the landmark legislation Family and Medical Leave Act.

Lichtman recognized that legislative efforts will succeed only if women continue to individually fight for equality. She encouraged women to fight the small battles. According to her, "Politics are personal, women must challenge relatives and others" about the need for better workplace policies. Women must not be afraid to speak up in the workplace and to use existing resources to remain in the workplace.


Linda Bray Chanow is an Associate at Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, where she specializes in litigation. She recently completed a study of existing alternative work arrangements at law firms in Washington, D.C. Her article detailing the results will be available through the Women's Bar Association in 2000.

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