Progress (sort of)

by Angela N. Johnson

The ABA’s Commission on Women in the Legal Profession frequently reassess women’s progress in the legal profession.  The 2006 report compares statistics from 1994 to 2002 and includes highlights of the Commission’s 2003 Hearings.  Some of the most helpful findings are:

1994:   Just 23% of all lawyers in the United States are women (12.9% of partners in major law firms are women; 4% of general counsels in Fortune 500 companies are women).  45% of law students are women.  5.9% of tenured positions at law schools are held by women.  13% of U.S. Court of Appeals Judges are Women; 12% of U.S. District Court judges are women.

2000:   Full-time women lawyers earn 73% of what their male counterparts earn.

2002:   29.1% of all lawyers in the United States are women (16.3% of partners in major law firms are women; 15% of general counsels in Fortune 500 companies are women). 50% of law students are women.  25.1% of tenured positions at law schools are held by women. 17.4% of U.S. Court of Appeals Judges are Women; 16.2% of U.S. District Court judges are women.

2003:   Full-time women lawyers earn 76% of what their male colleagues earn.

According to the report, when taking into consideration the increase of women law school graduates in the last 25 years, the data presented indicate women are nowhere near achieving gender equality; women legal professionals are still lagging behind greatly in several areas, especially in large law firms and the judiciary(Commission on Women in the Profession).  Moreover, many of the problems reported in the previous 1995 report, such as women lawyers being viewed as insufficiently aggressive, uncomfortably forthright, too emotional, or not as serious as men about their careers” remained present in 2003 (Commission on Women in the Profession 5). 

In the 1995 report, most law firms were found to have official “family-friendly” policies which permitted lawyers to work part-time schedules. However, lawyers are “reluctant to take advantage of those policies because they feared professional repercussions and that they would be perceived as less seriously committed to the profession than their full-time counterparts.  Worse, some witnesses complained that those who did opt for a part-time schedule with a part-time salary often found themselves the victims of ‘schedule creep,’ where work expands beyond the agreed-upon hours with no corresponding increase in compensation” (Commission on Women in the Profession 6).  The 2003 follow-up to the 1995 report indicate a greater number of firms are allowing part-time schedules but that the same problems previously mentioned are still present.  Moreover, women are now reporting that the implementation of a part-time schedule thwarts prospects for promotion and one’s commitment to the firm is questioned.

Women of color are not only plagued with gender discrimination but an additional barrier: “the need to repeatedly establish their competence, gender discrimination in minority bar associations, and race discrimination n majority bar associations” (Commission on Women in the Profession 6).

In 2003 the Commission on Women in the Profession held hearings to discuss current struggles.  Some of the more pressing issues discovered include:

Billable Hour: 

When billable hours emerged as the primary model used by lawyers, lawyers billed an average of 1,300 hours a year.  In 2003, lawyers at large New York firms are expected to bill 2,200 to 2,400 hours per year, in addition to 600 non-billable hours.  Women lawyers report the need to meet high billable hour requirements leave little time for participating in presentations, participation in professional associations, basic networking, and working on publishable articles.  Further, time spent on anything other than achieving billable hours comes at an expense of reduced time for family and other personal non-work time.  “Two law students at the hearings also testified that the emphasis on billable hours has led some women to avoid private practice and opt for jobs in the public sector instead” (Commission on Women in the Profession 7). 

“Sandwiching” of Responsibilities:

Between 1988 and 2003, women lawyers are reporting an increasing difficulty in finding time for a legal career between caring for young children and for elderly parents. Further, “women attorneys reported that they were increasingly bearing a disproportionate share of these burdens” (Commission on Women in the Profession 7).

The Technology Trap:

Technology presents a double-edged sword for all professionals but especially “for women as long as they shoulder a disproportionate share of the burden of child and elder care” (Commission on Women in the Profession 8).  On one hand, technology can allow lawyers to telecommute and take work home so they can be closer to their families.  However, technology can intrude into a lawyer’s “off the clock” time.  Lawyers who are tethered to their jobs by pagers, cell phones, fax machines, and e-mail are easily accessible to clients who expect total availability and immediate responses.

The Generational Divide:

Older women lawyers who faced great obstacles to entering and advancing within the profession have a tendency to believe young lawyers (who face fewer obstacles) have not paid their dues.  Further, it is now more common for young lawyers to delay or forego marriage or child bearing all together.  “The prior generation had to make such sacrifices the next generation of women simply does not want to make.  Some younger women at the hearings also recounted their frustration with senior women who do little to help them” (Commission on Women in the Profession 8).

Participants at the 2003 hearings proposed ways to improve the legal workplace for women:

“No glass ceiling” programs and initiatives give female associates more access to clients and place women on firm committees and bar-sponsored training programs that include such topics as career paths and rainmaking (bringing in new clients/business to the firm).

Mentoring of young women lawyers is critical.  The veteran women lawyers can lead by example, especially those who have succeeded in both careers and having a family.  However, “because relatively few women are in senior positions . . . younger women should seek both male and female mentors who can bring different perspectives and values to the relationship” (Commission on Women in the Profession 9). 

Women’s groups and networking are essential to seeking gender equity. Networking activities which bring women clients and women attorneys together are especially beneficial to both the client and lawyer.

A revamping of the way part-time arrangements are made, including fostering an environment within the firm that truly follows part-time arrangements (ie. respecting off-the-clock time, not expecting work beyond the agreed part-time hours, and ending sentiments of inadequate commitment to the firm).  Another option is to allow non-partnership track associates to reduce the amount of required billable hours and instead focus on quality over quantity.  Firms should also provide temporary suspension of the “clock” for tenure or partnership to allow for childrearing (with no loss of standing for taking time off).

Source Citation: Commission on Women in the Profession. Charting Our Progress: The Status of Women in the Profession Today. Chicago: American Bar Association, 2006.


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