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November 26, 2013 Practice Points

Great Expectations

By Angela Benjamin

In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, “Great Expectations for Female Lawyers,” author Florence Martin-Kessler raises the question of whether women poised in 2001 to “have it all” in the big law firm setting had fulfilled those expectations more than 10 years into their practice. The article followed up on a 2001 magazine article portraying 21 women, most fresh out of law school, at a big New York law firm. The author was curious about what happened to these women who were about to enter the male-dominated world of big law.

In her follow up, Martin-Kessler learned that these 21 women had taken divergent career paths. Most were no longer with their original New York law firm, but more than half were still in private practice. Many of the women’s expectations had now bumped up against the realities of private practice. For example, one woman noted that the stress of making partner was just part of the game; once a person made partner, they still have to work hard. That particular woman said she wanted more of a balance. She ultimately left the New York law firm for a job with steady hours at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Another woman, who went from the law firm to a nonprofit and accepted an 80 percent pay cut in doing so, felt that her expectation from 2001—that working hard and dedicating herself to her practice would get her everything she wanted—was unrealistic. She seemed to struggle with the choices she has made since the original article. As noted by still another of the women, no matter what industry you look at, only 15–20 percent of the leadership in those industries are women, and the numbers are not changing dramatically over time. Indeed, only 4 percent of top U.S. law firms are run by women.

Considering these experiences, Martin-Kessler concludes that the women’s lives “were often far more complex than they had predicted,” and that “[e]ven the greatest of expectations, it seems, eventually encounter reality.”

Keywords: woman advocate, litigation, law firms, women professionals, work-life balance

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