Success of women in legal careers: lack of advancement is not a “woman” problem, it is a “profession” problem
ABA President Patricia Lee Refo. Photo courtesy of ABA Media Relations.
A June 29 column from the ABA Journal by Susan Smith Blakely titled “Do Women Lawyers Pay Enough Attention to Upward Mobility?” have expressed opinions that are contrary to the fundamental beliefs and principles of the American Bar Association.
The lack of upward mobility of women in the profession is not because women do not devote time and effort, nor because they are distracted by other concerns in their lives. Legal employers face many systemic issues that must be addressed when it comes to promoting and retaining female lawyers. Blaming women lawyers is appalling.
It is not a “woman” problem. This is a problem of the legal profession rooted in outdated work structures.
Women lawyers are not a homogeneous group who all share the same life experiences or family situations. We shouldn’t be teaching women lawyers how they have to adjust their lives to be successful.
Certainly, no woman should ever be told she has to choose between her career and her family. It is the profession’s responsibility to create a fair and equitable playing field for women. The American Bar Association, which has been led by 10 female presidents, including four of the last five, knows that women lawyers stay in jobs where culture, policies and practices promote their success and job satisfaction.
The ABA is and has been deeply committed to ensuring the full and equal participation of women in ABA, the profession and the justice system, and we will continue to do what is necessary to achieve this.
The whole association strives to ensure equal participation by producing timely reports, studies and recommendations to help law firms and other legal employers address persistent gender inequalities in our profession, to make men allies and to fight against sexual harassment.
There are plenty of theories and anecdotal evidence as to why women leave the profession or are not promoted as often as male lawyers, but anecdotes don’t change the perception the data does. The ABA has funded research into the legal careers of women lawyers, including surveys, focus groups, studies of long-term career paths for women lawyers, and investigations into issues faced by lawyers of color. over 55 years old.
The 2019 ABA report Go out the door, focuses on the long-term experiences of women in the country’s 500 largest companies. The ABA 2020 report In Their Own Words: Experienced Lawyers Explain Why They Are Leaving Their Firms and The Profession, finds that there is not a single reason why women leave the profession.
Our research found that 45% of women said they were denied appropriate access to business development opportunities because of their gender. In contrast, only 6% of men felt the same. The focus groups highlighted stories of female lawyers who felt they were used as a symbol of diversity in a meeting. Many said the credit for the work they did was stolen by a male colleague.
Women in their 50s, even those with significant accomplishments, told us they felt invisible. Younger associates complain that they are given less important assignments that limit their ability to progress. Experienced lawyers describe the fatigue of success; Women lawyers are tired of working harder to achieve the same level of success as men and say, “I’m done.”
The implicit bias is also part of the problem. Most people don’t believe they have it, and when challenged they rationalize their behavior. In fact, a survey found that 67% of female lawyers believe they are immediately treated as less engaged in the profession when they reveal they are becoming mothers. But men are seen as more engaged when they become parents. Studies show that implicit bias is a major factor in the gender pay gap.
One woman described the career obstacles faced by female lawyers as “the death of a thousand strokes”.
These reports offer suggestions for reversing the situation. They include developing a strategy and setting goals to achieve specific goals, providing resources to alleviate the pressures of family obligations that women face more often than men, assessing performance. impact of firm policies and practices on female lawyers, increasing lateral recruitment of women, and ensuring that there is a critical mass of female partners on key firm committees. During the international tribute to Ruth Bader Ginsburg from the World Law Congress in Madrid this week, which some of us attended, much praise and admiration was given to the late judge of the Supreme Court of the States -United, and rightly so.
But it’s important to remember that after graduating first in her class from Columbia Law School in 1959, Ginsburg received no job offers from a New York law firm. She was one of the greatest jurists of our generation and later said of the snub: âA Jew, a wife and a mother was a bit too much. Three goals put me offside.
Much has changed since 1959. Ginsburg was just one of nine women in her law class when she was at Harvard and was asked to justify why she was taking the place away from men. Today, women represent 54% of law students. In 1970, women represented only 3% of the profession against 37% today.
But prejudices against women persist in the profession. Despite the higher number of women in law firms, only 21% are partners and only 2% are women of color. The higher a woman goes in a law firm, the more likely she is to be one of the few women in the room.
We will not sit idly by and watch half of the legal profession come out, putting their skills and experience just when they should be most effective. It is a terrible deal for the profession and terrible for the customers. And it is wrong.
Women lawyers deserve a fair and equitable work environment where policies and ethics allow them to thrive and do not take them away. We can do much, much better â for women lawyers, for the legal profession, and for our clients.
Signed by the 10 women presidents of the ABA:
Roberta Cooper Ramo, 1995-96
Martha W. Barnett, 2000-01
Karen J. Mathis, 2006-07
Carolyn B. Lamm, 2009-10
Laurel G. Bellows, 2012-13
Paulette Brown, 2015-16
Linda Klein, 2016-17
Hilarie Bass, 2017-18
Judy Perry Martinez, 2019-20
Patricia Lee Refo, 2020-21