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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    July 01, 2011

    Career: Women Lawyers Walking the Tightrope

    In part one of this two-part article on women lawyers balancing work and life, the author shows the glass ceiling is still in place. And, traditional career paths still prevail even though the need for alternate paths and flexible work arrangements to help women succeed as lawyers was identified more than 20 years ago.

    Michael F. Moore

    In 1989, Felice Schwartz observed in “Management Women and the New Facts of Life” that not all professional women followed the same career paths.1 She suggested organizations should adopt flexible work arrangements to accommodate and retain this “precious resource.” The proposal, which promptly became known as the “Mommy Track,” was criticized as being nothing more than a way to push women into dead-end career options.

    In 2011, the Wall Street Journal’s Women in the Economy conference identified flexible working arrangements as a top priority for organizations. It was also suggested that a lattice structure replace the traditional ladder structure as a new pathway to success. (See sidebar.) A recommendation for law firms was that compensation and advancement systems contain clearly defined objectives to level the playing field for men and women and include rewards for collaboration and teamwork, working styles that are more prevalent among women lawyers.

    Michale MooreMichael Moore, Lewis and Clark 1983, is a professional coach for lawyers and the founder of Moore’s Law, Milwaukee. He focuses in marketing, client development, and leadership coaching for attorneys at all levels of experience. He also advises law firms on strategic planning and resource optimization. He has more than 25 years’ experience in private practice, as a general counsel, in law firm management, and in legal recruiting.

    Given that the same recommendations appear in 2011 as in 1989, has any progress been made? The glass ceiling appears to be intact, and options for success for women lawyers are often limited. The definition of flexible work arrangements is still not clear, and such arrangements are not universally accepted. In many law firms, the generational evolution of new values has not overcome institutionalized practices. Despite these obstacles, many women lawyers continue to walk the tightrope to success.

    The Glass Ceiling Remains Unbroken

    When Felice Schwartz’s article appeared in 1989, women made up 43 percent of law school graduates nationwide. By 2000, that statistic had increased to 48 percent, and in recent years, on average, 50 percent of all law school graduates have been women.2 As a result, now approximately 50 percent of the associates at large law firms are women.3 However, only about 15 percent of the equity partners at large law firms are women, and that percentage has remained essentially unchanged for the past five years.4 In addition, about 80 percent of large firms have only one or two women members on their highest governing committee. A majority of these firms have no women on such committees.

    This situation may be related to the fact that these same firms report either no women at all among their top 10 rainmakers or at most, one woman. Even when women do become equity partners, they earn, on average, only 85 percent of the compensation earned by male equity partners.5 In 1989, a common reason cited for the lack of women at the top of large law firms was a lack of talent in the pipeline. That is obviously not the case now, 22 years later. So what is happening?

    Attrition Among Women Lawyers is High

    The short answer is that women leave private-firm practice at a much higher rate than men, reducing the pool of potential and actual partners. This was documented in a 2007 study conducted by the MIT Workplace Center. Working as a lawyer is very demanding, and attrition in law firms is double what it is in most professions. Close to 78 percent of all associates will leave their law firms by their fifth year of practice.6 Of these, about 30 percent of the men and 25 percent of the women move to other firms. But almost 35 percent of the women will leave private-firm practice entirely at this point, compared to less than 20 percent of the men. Among junior or nonequity partners, 33 percent of the women leave private-firm practice, compared to only 15 percent of the men. Among equity partners, 15 percent of women leave their partnerships before normal retirement age compared to only 1 percent of men.7

    Options for Women Lawyers

    Every woman lawyer realizes she has some fundamental personal choices to make. The concept of “having it all” depends on one’s career goals. One Milwaukee lawyer in a large, in-house corporate department turned down working in a European office because of elder-care issues at home. A successful partner at a Milwaukee law firm accepted a compensation adjustment so that she could spend more time at home with her new daughter. An associate at a large firm in Madison decided to hire a full-time caregiver for her twins because she needed to work long hours.

    Being a successful lawyer is hard work. Giving excellent client service is a paramount requirement. Women lawyers need extra stamina because of the extra demands on their time. In addition to their careers, women frequently take a major role in housework and child rearing, often spending twice as much time as their spouses do on these activities. A new study from Washington & Lee University law professor Robin Wilson found that only 6 percent of women lawyers have a stay-at-home spouse, compared to almost 40 percent of male lawyers. For women lawyers, a flexible work arrangement is often a necessary option.

    Describing Flexible Work Arrangements

    Although most law firms classify work arrangements as either full time or part time, women lawyers in general dislike use of the term “part time.” One reason is that although 96 percent of law firms allow part-time work schedules, only 5 percent of lawyers make use of such arrangements because of the perception that doing so would adversely affect their professional advancement. Another reason is “schedule creep,” the tendency for the part-time lawyer’s hours to creep back toward full time, resulting in the lawyer working close to full-time hours for part-time pay.8 Schedule creep occurs primarily because success in most law firms continues to be measured by billable hours and revenues generated. Even in large corporate-counsel departments where there is no billable-hour pressure, there often is a demanding schedule of assignments and meetings and more travel requirements than in private practice.

    Most women lawyers are more than willing to meet these challenges but many seek alternatives to the traditional model of “all work – no life.” One Milwaukee in-house corporate lawyer works a full-time schedule but has made it a priority to be home for dinner with her young children every night. A partner at a Milwaukee law firm works from home one day each week so she can also help out at her daughter’s school. A partner at a Madison law firm who recently adopted a child switched to a fixed schedule of specific days in the office and specific days at home. Each of these women makes adjustments to these arrangements as client needs dictate. Each makes extensive
    use of technology to maintain their heavy work loads. And each was able to do so because her employer embraced her suggestion of a flexible work arrangement in the first place.

    Priorities in Flexible Work Arrangements

    For women who are contemplating asking for flexible work arrangements, there are some practical guidelines. In general, you need to first establish yourself as a proven performer. The Madison associate with twins reaches her hourly billing objectives, is active at firm functions, and recently accepted a practice-area leadership role. A lawyer seeking a flexible work arrangement needs to present a business plan justification for the arrangement. When a woman lawyer at a large Milwaukee firm had her first child as an associate, she needed to demonstrate her level of personal productivity, ability to get projects completed as needed, and willingness to be on call even when not physically present in the office. When she became a partner and had her second child, the focus of what she needed to demonstrate turned to managing client demands and delegating work assignments to maintain revenue generation.

    Given these requirements, there is no doubt a woman partner in a private firm has more leverage than a woman associate to create a flexible working arrangement. For a corporate in-house lawyer, the absence of billable-hour pressures and the greater use of flexible working arrangements in general by the business community appear to create a more favorable environment. However, a woman lawyer at a Milwaukee corporation recently was told by her direct superior’s boss that her ability to get promoted would require an adjustment to her “family friendly” office hours of 8 to 5, despite the fact she had received an above-average evaluation and demonstrated a willingness to work from home at night and to travel when needed. The superior attorney thought face time in the office during nontraditional hours – like weekends – was necessary.

    Face Time and the Recession’s Impact

    When the economic recession forced cost cutting in the legal profession nationwide, men and women generally were terminated in rates proportionate to their numbers as associates and partners.9 However, the exception was for lawyers working less than full time, positions that are occupied in larger numbers by women. The substantial majority of part-time lawyers cut were women,10 further decreasing the ranks of women who might later become equity partners or law firm leaders. Even for those lawyers who remain employed, a general feeling of angst prevails, as if waiting for the other shoe to drop. Now, more than ever, the focus is primarily on personal productivity.

    In many law firms, there has been a shift in values toward the expectation that each individual will demonstrate a willingness to put the good of the firm above all else. In such a culture, perceptions about the importance of face time in the office and burning the midnight oil become crucial, often even exaggerated. Law firms can be highly political environments in which who you know and what connections you cultivate can make a difference in career success. The combination of such a culture with immediate economic challenges often means flexible work arrangements and work/life balance initiatives become even less of an option. With many law firm management committees still dominated by hard-charging baby boomers, this regression is also a natural reaction.

    Generational and Institutional Factors

    At many law firms, baby-boomer partners with all-work/no-family value systems and Gen X partners and Gen Y associates with balanced-work/life value systems appear headed for a natural conflict. In particular, younger women lawyers – who often do not plan on postponing either a successful career or an active family life – have a personal expectation of a working culture where this can become a reality. At many law firms, however, despite these new generations’ rise to leadership positions, little seems to have changed. One successful woman partner at a large Chicago law firm, herself actively visible on women’s issues within various legal associations, observed that so long as the traditional governance models and evaluating processes remain, leaders from the new generation often will adapt for personal gain rather than seek to change the paradigms. This means the hidden biases, harmful stereotypes, and inadequate presence of either effective mentors or role models for women will not be changed simply by a new generation coming to power.

    Building the Safety Net

    Despite slow progress in the 20 years since Felice Schwartz’s observations, there are significant forces at work in the marketplace that will affect law firms. The rise of women in influential management roles all across the business spectrum means that women will play an expanded role in deciding which lawyers and law firms will do their legal work. Law firms that do not adapt may face declining revenues. The cost of attrition at law firms is usually estimated at two times the lawyer’s salary, often between $200,000 and $300,000 per lawyer. Law firms that fail to provide better working environments will continue to bleed cash from partners’ pockets, and talented lawyers will migrate from these places. In addition, women’s legal associations are now focused on helping members develop the vital skill of rainmaking. As more women become top economic producers, they will have much more influence on policy decisions, perhaps even to the detriment of entrenched male colleagues.

    The second part of this article, in the August issue, will explore how law firms and in-house legal departments can initiate positive activities to enhance their competitive position in the market. Women lawyers have demonstrated that they will not be deterred from stepping onto the tightrope to success. The most successful legal organizations will be those that build an effective safety net and help women lawyers complete the walk.


    1 Felice Schwartz, Management Women and the New Facts of Life, Harv. Bus. Rev., Jan.-Feb. 1989.

    2 American Bar Association, “Enrollment and Degrees Awarded 1963-2008.”

    3 National Association for Law Placement (NALP), “Law Firm Diversity Demographics Slow to Change-Minority Women Remain Particularly Scarce in Law Firm Partnership Ranks” (Oct. 10, 2008).

    4 National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) & the NAWL Foundation, “Report of the Fourth Annual National Survey on Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms” (Oct. 2009).

    5 NALW & the NAWL Foundation, “Report of the Fifth Annual National Survey on Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms” (Oct. 2010).

    6 Cynthia L. Spanhel & Paula A. Patton, “Toward effective management of associate mobility: A status report on attrition” (NALP Foundation 2005).

    7 MIT Workplace Center 2007, “Women Lawyers and Obstacles to Leadership.”

    8 NALP (Dec. 7, 2006).

    9 NAWL & the NAWL Foundation, supra note 5.

    10 Id.

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