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Wednesday, Jun 7, 2023

Why It’s a Man’s World at Many Valley Law Firms

How many women law school graduates does it take to make one female law firm partner? It may sound like another lawyer joke, but no one’s laughing about the conspicuous absence of female attorneys at law firms. A persistent shortfall in the number of women leaving the partnership track at law firms has been nagging at the profession for some time now despite the fact that the number of female law school graduates has been increasing. But more recently, the disturbing trend has been getting a lot more attention. “Law firms are putting a lot of resources into trying to change it. That’s for sure,” said James Leipold, executive director of NALP, the association for legal career professionals. “And there’s a lot of scholarship devoted to figure out why that is, because women have made up half the law school graduates for a very long time.” “We’re Outta Here: Why Women are Leaving Big Firms,” was the cover story of California Lawyer magazine last month. And this summer the University of California Hastings College of Law’s Leadership Academy for Women will hold its first development program for women law partners, a program that aims to address the professional development of these attorneys “within the economic and political context of law firms.” Although women start out at these firms in healthy numbers, their numbers drop off considerably in subsequent years, often before they become firmly entrenched along the partnership track. Women account for just 44 percent of attorneys at law firms nationally and a miniscule 18 percent of partners, despite the fact that nearly 50 percent of law school graduates are women, up from 40 percent in the late 1980s. Among the Valley’s largest firms, women typically represent anywhere from 24 percent to 43 percent of the firms’ attorneys and between 20 percent and 33 percent of the firms’ partners. Those who study the issue say that the disparity is likely to be greater at smaller firms such as those that make up the Valley’s law firm population because those firms seek out more experienced attorneys, and since more women drop out of firms before they get to those levels, the pool is necessarily smaller. Less clear is why women leave. Difficulty achieving a work-life balance, particularly since women are still the primary caregivers in their families, is one reason most agree upon. But it isn’t the only one. “I don’t think it’s just the work/life balance,” said Leipold. “I think there are issues of job satisfaction and reward, issues of access to meaningful work that are not exactly shared equally because it’s still a male network that runs these firms.” As women have chosen to give up the partnership track to rear children, they have left the management of law firms to men, and with men now dominating, these firms have developed cultures that implicitly, if not explicitly, frown upon those who seek a greater work/life balance without giving up their careers. “It’s preconceived notions,” said Kristi Dean, one of two female partners at Stone, Rosenblatt & Cha, the only Valley firm whose roster of female attorneys, 55 percent, closely mirrors the number of women who graduate law firms. “The attitude is if you have to run out the door to pick up your kids or attend a teacher’s conference, obviously you have different priorities than we ask of you here. You can convey that attitude in a multitude of ways. It can be a look. Or it can be when bonus time comes up and the boss says remember when I asked you do to that.” Perhaps not coincidentally, SRC makes provisions for its attorneys male and female to attend to family responsibilities that the partners say is rare among law firms. “From my perspective as a woman, SRC is atypical because it practices what it preaches,” said Dean. “It has a philosophy of family first and has procedures and protocols in place to live up to that.” The female partners interviewed for this story say that they are not aware of any overt discrimination keeping women out of the firms or from advancing. But that doesn’t mean that the firm’s culture doesn’t work against women. “If things were different in my family, I probably would have left the law,” said Catherine Stevenson Garcia, a partner with Wasserman, Comden & Casselman LLP. By sheer coincidence, Garcia’s husband was unemployed when the couple’s son was diagnosed with autism, and he decided to become his son’s primary caretaker. Had he not, Garcia is pretty certain she would have forsaken her career to care for her son. “I’m wondering if other women face similar situations,” Garcia said. In addition to the increasing pressures to log billable hours, the practice of law itself imposes time constraints to a greater degree than some other professions, some say. “Children are a big factor, but they’re certainly not the only one,” said Ida Abbott, who practiced law for years before turning to consulting and is a founder and director of the Hastings Leadership Academy for Women. “The work conditions in a large law firm are not conducive to having a private life.” Although some say that the time pressures that attorneys face are no different from those in other professions, there are, for some practices at least, circumstances that are unique to the profession. “I think one of the pressures with being a lawyer is a lot of your clients expect you to be at their beck and call,” said Karen Bray, a partner at Horvitz & Levy. “You’re also to some extent at the beck and call of the judicial system. If a court demands a supplemental briefing at the last moment, you have to show up. So, depending on your practice you have less control over your schedule than you may have in some other jobs.” There is also some evidence that the dominance of men at these law firms also contributes to a kind of self-selecting process when it comes to recruiting, and even the assignments doled out to junior lawyers. “Women don’t have access to the same assignments when they’re junior lawyers,” said Leipold. “They may not get as much face time, not by design, but just because the bulk of the leadership in law firms is men and because we do naturally gravitate to other men.” Within the profession itself there is also increasing awareness that the pressure to produce billable hours is taking a toll not just on women, but on younger attorneys of both genders. The turnover rate at these firms now stands at about 19 percent a year. At that rate, law firms will lose about 70 percent of their lawyers within five years. “It’s not just women,” Abbott said. “We’re talking about a major generational shift. More and more men want to be involved with their families, and they don’t want to be slaves to the office either. So you’re seeing a very different set of attitudes among young lawyers.” Most of the partners in law firms today are baby boomers who were raised with a very different work ethic than many generation X’ers and certainly the generation Y lawyers just starting out. The women who entered law in the 70s saw themselves as pioneers paving the way for other women. They worked hard to show the male partners that women could cut it in the profession. “In my generation we were thinking more of changing the world,” said Cecilia Wu, a partner in the Alhambra office of Wasserman, Comden & Casselman. “Women in their thirties, several very intelligent women I know, have opted to become mothers. And that’s by choice.” Now, twentysomethings and thirtysomethings do not see role models in the women that are partners at these firms. They look at the choices they made to get where they are and they want no part of it. The same is true for a number of younger men. They are becoming discouraged at the increasing pressure to work longer and longer hours and the dwindling opportunities for partnerships as firms try to eke out greater and greater profits. That, some say, is creating a coming crisis for law firms. Instead of forging a new path within the firm structure, they are leaving to do other things, and leaving a void in the ranks of law firms as a result. “A lot go into government or teaching or small firms or they start their own firms,” said Abbott. “They’re going to places where they can have better quality of work, where they have more control over their lives and they don’t have to put up with the bureaucratic mess and the lack of attention.”

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