The following post originally appeared in Lawyers Who Lunch, a new blog about work-life balance from the Texas Young Lawyers Association. Find more posts at lawyerswholunchblog.com.
By Laura Docker
When I was a young girl, it never occurred that I shouldn’t want to be a lawyer. Being a girl didn’t make me feel any less able or likely to be successful in a career as a lawyer. While men still dominated the profession, growing up in the 1980s there were enough pop culture references to women lawyers to make it seem like a reasonable aspiration. Thank you Claire Huxtable and Christine from Night Court! In college I excelled and never considered that my gender might play a role in my success. I was a student, defined more by my affinity toward language (and procrastination), than my ability (or inability) to apply eyeliner on the shuttle bus from my dorm to class. In law school, the girls I went to school with were excelling, and were clearly represented among the top ranks of our class, whether by their grades, leadership on law review, or advocacy competitions.
I clerked with a class of students that included more women than men, and was hired into a class of three women and one male attorney. Fast forward to seven years later, I became a shareholder in my firm and suddenly I looked around and found myself one of only five females among the 20-plus shareholders at my firm. As a civil litigator, I began to notice the dominance of men in my profession — at bar events, CLEs, and even in the courthouse. Suddenly, I’m one of only a few women at the party. When did that happen?
While I’m prone to overdramatizing, in this instance the numbers back me up. A recent survey conducted by the American Bar Association noted that women make up only 17 percent of equity partners in law firms. When you start to focus on real leadership positions, the numbers look even worse. Only 4 percent of managing partners among the 200 largest law firms are held by women. But the problem is not just in law firms; fewer than 20 percent of general counsel positions among Fortune 500 companies are held by women, and women comprise only one-third of the judiciary.
So the question remains, why don’t the numbers add up? Law schools are graduating more female than male attorneys, and have been for years. Women are nearly equally represented in their associate years, but somewhere along the way the women start disappearing (not altogether, but you know what I mean). The easy answer is work-life balance, right? Women get married, have babies, and reprioritize. I’m sure there are some who think us girls simply can’t hack the hours or the stress or the pressure of law practice and retreat to the sanctity of our families. I can’t say I haven’t considered it. I’ve got a husband and two kids who love me no matter how many hours I bill. Not all walk away from work altogether — there is also attrition to nonlegal careers, some naturally stemming from an area of legal expertise — but others are departures from the practice of law altogether.
While these are examples of where these ladies may be ending up, they do not provide a real explanation for what is happening and why. After all, my male attorney friends are getting married and starting families. They get frustrated by the pressures of the practice just as much as my girlfriends and I do. But they don’t make the decision to press on or change course knowing that their peers are twice as likely to make the choice to do something else (or nothing) with their law degree.
This is such a complicated issue, and one I have spent many hours discussing with girlfriends over lunch or a glass of wine. Is it just the physical pressures of motherhood? The societal expectations of women? The structural obstacles of firm or corporate life that uniquely disfavor women? Is it the remnants of the good-old-boys network that still prevents access? Or is it simply a matter of time? I know a lot of young women who I count among the brightest and hardest working attorneys I have met. Perhaps, it is just a matter of letting this generation rise up in mass numbers through the glass barriers those gals who came before us took such efforts to break down.
These are tough and complicated questions without easy answers. But I think it’s important that we are talking about them. What are your thoughts? Join the conversation by posting your comments here.
Laura Docker is a shareholder at Brackett & Ellis, P.C., where she maintains a busy litigation docket of medical malpractice defense, personal injury defense, employment law, and school law cases. She lives in Fort Worth with her husband and two wild sons, Jack and Bo.