The New York Times has a long and worthwhile article today entitled, "Why Do So Few Women Reach The Top Of Big Law Firms?" The thrust of the article is that women are underrepresented at the top of major law firms -- "only about 17 percent of the partners at major law firms nationwide were women in 2005." The article says it's not just about women leaving to raise children, but that most depart firms for other careers or other settings where they can practice law, partly because they feel like outsiders at the firm:
"I had very little help and no mentors. I saw other women arrive at the firm, struggle, and leave."...
[Another woman] describes her experiences at those law firms as lonely, degrading, and akin to journeys through halls of mirrors.
"Women are held to higher standards, and if they don't jump up and down like a man would at a meeting they aren't seen as partnership material," she says.
Toward the end, the piece criticizes billable hours as part of the reason:
Over the last two decades, as law firms have devoted themselves more keenly to the bottom line, depression and dissatisfaction rates among both female and male lawyers has grown, analysts say; many lawyers of both genders have found their schedules and the nature of their work to be dispiriting.
"I see a lot of people who are distressed about where the profession has gone," Ms. Rikleen says. "They don't like being part of a billable-hour production unit. They want more meaning out of their lives than that."
But the billable hours stuff excepted, this was a really positive article about law firm life. Referring to one female partner, near the beginning of the piece: "The background music floating about this particular stage set is composed of the steady, reassuring cadences of talented, ambitious lawyers greeting their clients... one of the legal world's most storied and most lucrative prizes: a partnership. Her corner office has evidence of the hard work that has gotten her here: stacks of legal documents sprout like small chimneys on her desk and floor, amid rows of black binders and brown accordion folders."
I guess that's one way of describing it. Small chimneys of paper. Sounds so peaceful and rustic. "She has a job that makes her happy and reflects her sense of herself. She is an accomplished lawyer. She has arrived."
Good for her. Thirty-three paragraphs later, we get this:
[Ms. Plevan] said that she and her husband, who is a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in New York, carefully and jointly managed their family life together as they raised two sons, one of whom required extra attention because of a learning disability.
The Plevans engineered this by cutting back on their social calendar, sharing household chores and making sure that at least one parent was home for dinner most nights.
One parent home for dinner *most* nights. Well, that's certainly impressive. What? Is this the goal? It's great that these parents are both law firm partners. But is it really honest to pretend that this means they're spending a lot of time at home? "The Plevans' incomes allowed them to hire household help..." No kidding. Need someone at home for dinner those other nights, I guess. I don't know. I read that paragraph to my mom over the phone. She laughed. "That's ridiculous," she said. "They think one of them being home for dinner, sometimes, means they're doing great?"
I do think the article is probably a fair description of some reasons why women are underrepresented at the top of major law firms.
What it doesn't do is ask whether maybe it's the women who have the right idea, for the most part, and are finding jobs with better work-life balance, and maybe we shouldn't be looking at what law firms can do to retain more women, but look at why all these men are staying. Maybe that's not fair. Just a thought.
[Digression: There's a quote from the founding partner of Haynes & Boone that I expect he'll regret: "I don't care if I'm hiring Martians if it makes good business sense." If I'm a Martian and I read that, there's a resume on his desk by Monday. This guy is going to show up on Monday with an inbox full of resumes from Martians. The feeling they weren't welcome at big firms has been what's kept them away, I think. But now with this Times piece, they know the opportunity is out there, and like everyone else, they're going to be all over it. It's going to be a busy week for the recruiting people over at Haynes & Boone -- and the resulting phone bill will be enormous. I hope they have space-wide long distance.]