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Women are quickly becoming the majority of law school graduates; in 2005 the percentage of women graduating from law school was at an all - time high of 49.2%. 1 Yet as these young women enter the work force there are a number of issues that they will undoubtedly encounter because they are young women, women of color and/or simply because they are of the female gender. On behalf of the collective wisdom of my colleagues and friends, I share some of our thoughts and experiences.
While men and women associates start out at the same levels, whether in firms or public interest, women do not maintain the same career momentum. There are a number of reasons behind their drop - off in salaries, but more often than not, it is because they leave the areas of private practice for government or public interest jobs which have a lower pay scale and more flexible hours. The presumption seems to be that you cannot keep up with the billable hours and maintain a personal life; so women decide to circumvent the higher pay scale for a more flexible schedule which leads to a lower income in comparison to their male counterparts.
Yet, there have been numerous studies that have found clear gender bias when it comes to salaries, and those bias' are compounded by a number of the issues discussed below. There is no single reason for why the disparity between men and women continues to exist, but discussing the issues and providing women with the tools to succeed will begin to alleviate the gap.
Women make up 43.4% of all associates but only 17.29% of all partners. 2 Reaching the upper echelon of management has been a difficult road for most women. These positions are built not only on hard work and a proven track record, but also on building relationships that create opportunities. The ability to foster those relationships between associate and partner is inextricably connected to receiving quality assignments, business development and fostering client business.
Access to these and other leadership opportunities are what ultimately leads to the partnership/upper management track. Yet, when women are still being left out of those relationships because of lack of mentoring or inability to "break - in" to network thereby leaving few opportunities for women to reach those high ranks. Seeking out assignments and building relationships with the senior partners or management whom you admire or whose area you are interested in, will show your initiative and an example of self - promoting, which is skill we, as women, do not normally use.
FAMILY CHOICES, "The Maternal Wall"
The decision to focus on family should not be one that we get penalized for, yet, once a woman announces her decision to start a family or returns after maternity - leave, things at the office change. The work assignments begin to vary or we are provided less opportunities to participate in complex matters. There is a presumption that, as women, we will be less involved, motivated and/or distracted by the external personal matters and are unable to handle the various tasks and our personal lives. There is a sense that we are not committed to the work simply because we are unable to work 60 hour weeks. When a woman associate is told by a senior partner, "I don't know how you'll ever make partner since you don't have a wife at home to take care of the kids" - it is these types of presumptions that permeate the societal conscience and make achieving success that much more difficult.
For years, women have been able to work, both in and outside of the home, and been able to succeed in both worlds. It is ironic, that in 2006, this is still such a decisive issue. The legal profession is a demanding career, but women should not have to choose between either work or family. There are thousands of professional women who lead successful lives both at work and at home. If legal employers recognized that they need successful women attorneys, and they provided a supportive work environment, these women would be that much more successful. Unfortunately, the reality for women, working on a part - time basis, is that they work twice as hard and their compensation is not reflective of the work they do.
The negative perception attached to attorneys who decide to work part - time or leaving the office early for family responsibilities, or other commitments leads to being considered for fewer quality assignments. When the associate is not able to work the late hours that her counterparts do leads to her being viewed as not being "devoted" to the job so the partner/firm would rather not invest resources in her because she is not "producing." The partner/firm reasons that they will not recoup their investment.
There are a number of myths and misconceptions regarding the nature and role of women. Historically, the role of women has been one of the nurturing and gentle figures, which have been traditionally viewed as "weak" traits; by inference, if you are nurturing you can not be tough and assertive enough to represent a high end client - right?! But this is a double edged sword, because when women are aggressive and confident, then the traits are seen as negative and you are not being "feminine" enough. A woman can not be shrewd in her business dealings because it could be taken as being "calculating" or if she's being assertive, she is really being "pushy." It is a constant battle that we face, and it comes from not only your fellow colleagues, but from support staff, opposing counsel and the court room staff. Below are some examples of the stereotypes and some advice on how to deal with the situations.
Of all the " - isms" this is probably the one we can all relate to - being called "sweetie" by the senior partner or "honey" by your opposing counsel. These remarks can range from being an off - color remark to sexual harassment; yet, most of us have become so immune to this that these issues often go unaddressed. While we all face a number of obstacles, as women, we have learned to “pick our battles” because dealing with these issues can be so draining and overwhelming that we decide to just avoid the issue.
To many people, being called "sweetie" may be complimentary to some and seem irrelevant to others; however, that is not a title that two male peers would ever use with each other - so why use it with us?! When dealing with some comments, you can correct your colleague by saying something such as, "I prefer Griselda, please refer to me as such;" but when the remark or action verges on sexual harassment you must work through the proper channels to prevent a serious situation from occurring.
Many of us have been blessed with good genes, so that upon graduating we still have a very young appearance. Unfortunately, looking young can work against us. How many times has an older opposing counsel taken one look at you and had an immediate presumption that you are inexperienced and incompetent? For many of us, we have learned to use this "flaw" and turned it into an advantage. By letting opposing counsel underestimate our knowledge and experience, we are able to produce quality work which can lead to a win and hopefully earn the respect of that colleague.
Working with senior partners or older support staff can also prove to be difficult; they will ignore your requests or not take your work seriously, which can jeopardize your work and reputation. It is through quality work and perseverance that will earn you the respect, but when that fails you must talk with a colleague or mentor who can advise you on what the best approach can be to alleviate the problem.
As a woman of color, there is an extra layer of complexity to the equation of " - isms." Not only is there an immediate assumption of inexperience, but all too frequently, people assume that you could not possibly be a lawyer. I have entered courtrooms where the bailiff or court clerk has told me to go wait in the outside chairs because only "lawyers" are allowed at the desks, or that "clients" must wait for their lawyers to check in. These are comments and presumptions that none of my male, white counterparts would ever have to hear - so why should I? I realize that the number of attorneys of color, whether male or female are still few, but if I walk into the courtroom, in a suit, with my briefcase and files, why should I have to justify the reason for my being there?
It has taken me some time to overcome these immediate judgments; at first I was highly offended, and then I learned to "kill them with kindness." I approach them in a courteous manner, introduced myself by firmly stating my name and title and try to be engaging, so that the next time I would enter that courtroom they would hopefully not be so quick to judge. It has worked for me most of the time, but there will be people who simply will never be able to let go of their preconceived notions of who they think you are or where they think you belong - and as for those people, you learn to just move on.
While there is no easy answer to any of these problems, there are strategies and techniques women can adopt to ease some of tension and help resolve some of the issues mentioned above.
Relationships between women, and between upper management and associates is critical and has not yet had much success. Many firms and organizations have made attempts at establishing formal mentoring programs, but they have not been able to produce the necessary support systems that they hoped to provide. Working in the legal profession, we all have numerous commitments that require our time, and that coupled with the number of hours we work leaves little time to devote to another person. Yet, taking the time, either informally or formally, to be that sounding board or sharing some of your experiences with a newer attorney can be some of the most invaluable advice that you give that young associate.
Providing women the opportunity to building relationships, both within and outside of the workplace, allows for valuable insight of the tools necessary for success, and prepares them for leadership positions. If your firm or workplace does not provide a formal mentoring program, you must seek out those relationships. There are numerous bar associations with different committees and various opportunities where you can find other women who share your same interests. Or you can take the initiative to begin a program within your workplace. We must invest the time in ourselves to take the time to seek out women who can both advise us and inspire us to achieve our full success.
Employers are beginning to realize the importance of establishing flexibility in the workplace. They understand that providing these opportunities leads to happier and more productive employees and that happy employees are more likely to be profitable and remain loyal. It has come down to a cost - benefit analysis, because most firms invest large resources in their associates, only to have them leave after a few years because of the lack of quality of life. By promoting flexibility, it will best serve the needs of the attorney, which will produce better work for the client leading to bigger profits and the retention of high quality attorneys.
Firms/Management need to assess and understand the various obstacles to advancement that are particular to women. In the last few years, there have been a number of studies done by both the American Bar Association and other agencies that have taken a comprehensive look at these issues. As women are becoming a driving force in the workplace, management must support and commit to establish effective programs/tools to enable women to reach their full leadership potential.
As leaders in our respective fields we must take this information back to our places of business and begin the discussions needed for change. We must also remember to use daily encounters in our lives to break down some of these stereotypes and help ourselves succeed - whether you are filing your pleadings with a clerk or taking out the new associate for coffee - the education process begins with us.
1Press Release, National Association for Legal Career Professionals (NALP), Women and Attorneys of Color Continue to Make Small Gains at Large Law Firms, (November 16, 2005)(Full report is available on website), available at http://www.nalp.org.
2 Id. 1
About the Author
Griselda Vega is an attorney with the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago in Chicago, IL, where she practices general civil litigation, with a focus on family, employment, and housing law. Ms. Vega has been active in the ABA Young Lawyer's Division since 2002. She currently serves as the Women in the Profession Chair, on the Membership Board, and is a Commissioner to the ABA's Commission on Race and Ethnic Diversity.
Author's Note: There were several members of the ABA's YLD that contributed thoughts, advice and anecdotes to this article - so I thank them for their contribution to this article as well as our profession.