Practicing Law as a Woman--What's a Given?

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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

I recently attended a panel entitled "What It’s Really Like to Practice Law as a Woman," and given the cases I’m exposed to here at Legal Momentum, I was expecting a bleak discussion. The panel consisted of two in-house counsels, one U.S. Attorney, and the traditional Biglaw associate not far removed from law school. Contrary to my expectations, all four women expressed feeling at least satisfied, if not more, with how women in their current work place are treated. There was talk of flexible hours, telecommuting, and even paid maternity leave. Panelists also spoke of feeling respected and comfortable at work.  This was a sharp contrast to the cases of sexual harassment and pregnancy discrimination of women in nontraditional jobs that Legal Momentum has been taking on.  As we moved from the panel discussion to the reception, I felt excited and hopeful.

It wasn’t until I went home and digested what I had heard that I realized my excitement might have been premature.  While the situation for female attorneys is undoubtedly more promising than that of the women we serve here at Legal Momentum, there are many qualifications to having a comfortable work environment, including experience and seniority.  The U.S. Attorney spoke of having almost complete control over her docket (and therefore her hours); however, she is in a very senior position with many Assistant U.S. Attorneys below her.  My guess would be that she had little flexibility when she first started out. 

The two women who held in-house positions spoke of feeling respected and comfortable at their current job, but neither started out there.  Both women started out at a firm, and both women left.  One made it explicit that she left when her child was young, finding that her firm’s environment made necessities like stepping out to take her daughter to the doctor uncomfortable and a bit daunting.  The other felt that she could not express herself freely at her firm.  Again the theme of experience as a prerequisite to a comfortable and respectful workplace arose.  Corporations seeking in-house counsel generally do not hire fresh graduates; an attorney needs to gain experience before he or she can transition to this more flexible, potentially “family-friendly” position.   

The Biglaw associate was the youngest attorney on the panel in terms of years out of law school, and her example of why she felt her firm was hospitable to women was striking.  Her anecdote was a comparison between her firm and another she had been invited to for negotiations.  Upon arrival she was warned that the main floor, where she would be, did not have a women’s restroom.  When she inquired how female employees dealt with this, the response she received was a startling “it doesn’t really come up”.  The takeaway being that her firm is a decent place for women to work because at least it has a women’s restroom, with the subtext that her firm also hires enough women for said restroom to be necessary.  That’s a pretty low standard. 

While it does seem that there are opportunities for women to both be respected for the quality of their legal work as well as achieve the ever elusive “work-life balance” à la the debate recently revived by Anne-Marie Slaughter's article in the Atlantic, these prospects seem to be limited to women who have been practicing for a number of years. On one hand, there is the idea that you have to work for your perks; benefits are earned, not gifted. However, is an office environment that is cognizant of the different needs of the different genders, while also respecting each one equally, really a perk? Shouldn’t it be a given? I think so, but then again, I also thought that a women’s restroom would be a given.