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DTCI: Can women in the legal profession really beat the odds?

October 23, 2013

dtci-thompson-stacyAlthough the number of women in American law schools is equal to or surpasses the number of men, the number of women climbing the ladder and holding top positions at law firms and corporations is still far less than the number of men. According to the latest survey by the National Association of Women Lawyers, the percentage of women equity partners at the nation’s 200 largest law firms has remained largely unchanged at 15 percent since NAWL began its survey in 2006.

In the April 24, 2013, edition of the Indiana Lawyer, five of the 14 “Up and Coming Lawyers” were women. However, only one of the 15 “Distinguished Barristers” was a woman. When Judy L. Woods, Distinguished Barrister, was asked what bugs her in life or law, she responded, “Persistent prejudice and lack of diversity. We still have a long way to go in law and life before there is gender equality.”

Women have certainly made strides in the legal profession and the workplace at large. In spite of obstacles, some women do reach the top levels. So, what are these obstacles and what does it take to overcome them? What can firms do to retain valuable women attorneys?

Research has shown that the greatest barrier to advancement for women attorneys is the work-family conflict. A woman attorney who is pregnant should never have to hear that the partners in her firm consider her maternity leave the equivalent of a male attorney’s six-week vacation. A woman attorney who is on partnership track should not have to worry that one of the things being considered is whether she is going to have children or more children.

Women often leave law firms because of pressures related to family and workplaces that do not support a balanced life. While some firms talk about the importance of life balance, their actions do not support their words. Although some firms offer a flexible work schedule, choosing such a schedule will hurt the woman’s opportunities for advancement. Many women attorneys think they have to choose between career advancement and family. Others have found no role models in their firm to assure them that they can successfully do both.

In candid conversations, women attorneys who have become partners indicated their success hinged on a team atmosphere, flexible schedules and on having women role models ahead of them as partners in their firm. They emphasized that balancing work and life is very difficult and that anyone who says it is easy to raise a family and have a full-time career is telling less than the truth. These women also demonstrated a can-do attitude and a commitment to resolve the issues of balancing work and personal life. While meeting every need is sometimes impossible, these women continue to find solutions that work for themselves and their families.

Because the majority of law students are now women, law firms face a challenge in retaining and motivating talented women attorneys. If senior partners believe in and value a system based on meritocracy, they will create the conditions that foster such an environment. Law firm management must not only speak gender equality, it must practice it. Firms invest a great deal in new attorney development, and the loss of key talent is a huge expense.

A true meritocracy requires both law firms and individuals to do their parts. Creativity in addressing issues of concern to women will certainly have an effect on a firm’s return on its investment. As the longest practicing woman attorney in Indiana, Phyllis Gratz Poff has been applauded by her peers for the example she has set. With a commitment from the legal community to master the necessary attitudes and skills, the next generation of women attorneys can be fully represented in the top ranks of the legal profession. I certainly can’t imagine that we would all not be better off with a few more like Phyllis Gratz Poff. (Read more about Phyllis Poff online at the Indiana Lawyer's website.

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Stacy Thompson is a partner in Clendening Johnson & Bohrer and is a director of the Defense Trial Counsel of Indiana. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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