Rejecting the traditional legal career path

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women-fbox.gifRecent reports do not offer much good news for women attorneys. They are not advancing into the leadership ranks at their law firms and, more troubling, the number of female associates is declining. But the reasons behind the trend may reflect women making choices that are different from the traditional career track.

proffitt-reese-melissa-mug.jpg Proffitt Reese

A 2012 survey by the National Association of Women Lawyers and the NAWL Foundation, released in October, found the percentage of female attorneys in the nation’s 200 largest firms gets smaller and smaller as the responsibility, authority and salary of the positions increase. The seventh annual “National Survey on the Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms” concluded women have not significantly progressed either economically or in reaching leadership roles during the years the survey has been conducted.

Looking back on her tenure as managing partner at Ice Miller LLP, Melissa Proffitt Reese is surprised more women have not appeared in the top management jobs. They possess a tremendous intelligence and talent, she said, but the practice of law in general has become much more challenging. Women may be stepping from the leadership pipeline, in part, because the pace of being a lawyer has been speeding up as clients demand 24/7 access and acquiring the technical expertise in a particular field requires greater amounts of time.

“I continue to think women try it for a while then they decide it’s not really the way they want to spend their career,” the Indianapolis attorney said.

Proffitt Reese’s observation is echoed by other women attorneys in Indiana. Female lawyers are capable and committed to putting in the necessary hours but they want flexibility. They want to meet the demands of their career on their own terms.

However, American Bar Association President Laurel Bellows raises concerns that women’s choices today could have a long-term impact.

“I worry about our returning to a white male profession,” she said.

‘No’ to nights and weekends

stephens-julie-mug Stephens

Julie Stephens, partner at Efron Efron & Yahne P.C. in Hammond, went to law school after she had earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees, got married and served as the director of the Sexual Assault Recovery Unit at the Porter County Prosecutor’s Office.

She had two children while a law student, and when she began interviewing for jobs, she was frank with the potential employers. When the daycare center closed each day, she intended to be there to pick up her little ones.

The first two firms were not receptive to her requirements, but the third one, her current employer, offered her a position. More then 10 years later, Stephens said she has not had to miss one track meet, cross country race or Girl Scout meeting unless she was scheduled to be in court. Without having the ability to balance her work and her family, she probably would not be a practicing attorney today.

“I don’t think so because … being a parent is as important to me as my career,” the 42-year-old said. “If I couldn’t have the flexibility I have now, I might have chosen something else.”

Laura Scott Scott

The shift in women’s attitudes toward their legal careers is generational. The trailblazing done by female attorneys in the past helped make practicing law a little more accommodating.

Attorneys – women as well as men – are wanting that work-life balance. Yet Bellows is seeing younger lawyers placing more emphasis on the life part. They tend to place greater importance on their current qualify of life and do not look ahead to consider what their quality of life will be in a decade, she said.

In addition, young female attorneys are interrupting their careers to be stay-at-home moms and are giving little thought to the importance of being economically independent, Bellows said. Contrary to their confidence that they will be able to easily resume their legal work when they want, firms may not be so willing to hire someone who has been away from the field and has little experience.

Within the legal profession, women seem more likely to consider jobs outside of practicing in a firm. Proffitt Reese noted females are interested in applying their skills in different ways such as being an in-house attorney, working for a non-profit or teaching. They want to work, they want to do their job, but they also want to have other expectations when they leave the office.

Devoting nights and weekends to profession then spending off-hours serving in community organizations is not appealing.

“From my standpoint,” Proffitt Reese said, “generally, right now, I see less women that are willing or interested in providing the full level of commitment to their careers.”

In the November “Report of a National Survey of Women’s Initiatives: The Strategy, Structure and Scope of Women’s Initiatives in Law Firms,” the NAWL Foundation wanted to highlight potential ways to bring more females into the largest law firms. The study noted even though women initiatives are a “staple of law firm culture,” there is little information about the impact of such programs.

Law offices must be diverse if they want to prosper, both Bellows and Proffitt Reese said. Attorneys have to reflect the gender and minority diversities found on juries, in business and in community organizations.

At Bamberger Foreman Oswald & Hahn LLP in Evansville, nearly a fourth of the attorneys are women, and that attracted Laura Scott to the firm as a young attorney. She did not want to be the first and only female in the ranks because she was looking for a mentor to help guide her through her career.

“I think there is a certain understanding that comes from people who’ve been in a similar situation,” Scott said. “When gender-specific issues come up, it is difficult to get advice or talk about it if someone has not been there.”

Going solo

Research recently released by the Association for Legal Career Professionals (NALP) highlights a troubling trend that indicates, in the future, fewer females could be practicing in firms, which would reduce the number of not only potential mentors but also possible leaders.

Nationwide, NALP found the number of women associates has slipped from 45.66 percent in 2009 to 45.05 percent in 2012. During that same period the percentage of women partners grew from 19.21 percent to 19.91 percent, but that uptick could be unsustainable if the pool of women associates continues to shrink.

Stephens described a trend she is seeing emerge in Northwest Indiana that illustrates, again, the story behind the statistics may be more complicated. More and more women attorneys, even those just graduating from law school, are going into solo practice.

Although she is not sure why they are choosing this path, Stephens believes it is a positive sign. These women have the confidence and ability to run their own firms and their practices are thriving.

Likewise, Proffitt Reese does not expect women, as a whole, will abandon law. Right now a comparatively small amount are managing and leading large firms, but she does not foresee the attraction to the field and availability of talent waning.

“I continue to see women entering the profession,” she said. “I think it’s a wonderful profession. It is a demanding profession, but it really does provide a fair amount of flexibility to design your own schedule.”•


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