BY CUSHLA TALBUT — In the 1873 case of Bradwell v. Illinois, Justice Joseph Bradley famously held that the Illinois Bar was within its rights to deny admission to a woman, Myra Bradwell, solely on the basis of her gender. In an infamous and oft-quoted passage, Justice Bradley pondered the role of women and the practice of law. “The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex,” wrote Justice Bradley, “evidently unfits it for many occupations of civil life . . . . The harmony . . . [of] the family institution is repugnant to the idea of a woman adopting a distinct and independent career from that of her husband. . . . The paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign office of wife and mother.”
Women have come a long way from Justice Bradley’s sexist sentiments and the denial of Myra Bradwell’s admission to the Illinois Bar by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1873. Today women constitute nearly 50 percent of the legal workforce, and a growing number of primary earners for their families. Women also make up the majority of students in colleges and grad schools. In the legal arena, women are going to law school at equivalent rates to men, garnering the same percentage of clerkships, and slowly closing the compensation gap between male and female attorneys.
However, a recent report from the National Association of Women Lawyers shows that female attorneys still have not attained gender equality. The 2012 National Survey on Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms focused on gender trends in the nation’s 200 largest law firms. Survey results showed troubling discrepancies between males and females in the elite world of large law firms, aka “BigLaw”:
- 47 percent of law school graduates are females. This percentage stays relatively constant when you view entry-level BigLaw associates— women associates constitute 45% of first- and second-year associates. However, as associates continue on the path to partnership, women only make up only 26 percent of non-equity partners and a measly 15 percent of equity partners.
- And those few women who make partner in BigLaw end up earning less than their male counterparts. Female associates make 99 percent of what their male counterparts do. Non-equity female partners earn 98 percent of the compensation of their male peers. But female equity partners make 11 percent less than male equity partners.
- Women equity partners bill equivalent hours, generate more business, and work more hours. Thus, the inconsistencies between the median compensation for male and female equity partners cannot be explained by differences in billable hours, total hours, or books of business alone.
- Staff attorneys are becoming the new “Mommy Track” for women in large law firms. “Staff attorneys” are defined as full-time lawyers that are not on the partnership track. Survey data showed that 80 percent of BigLaw firms used staff attorneys and 70 percent of those attorneys were females. As the report anecdotally points out, staff attorney positions allow women to “work in a pleasant environment with intelligent colleagues, earn good wages, and achieve the kind of work-life balance that simply isn’t possible for partner-track lawyers and partners in the large firm environment.” While this may seem nice, it does not comport with gender equality. Women should be able to achieve success in their careers by reaching the upper echelons of law firm leadership while simultaneously having a fruitful personal life.
The NAWL survey results parallel recent narratives of women in large law firms. A Miami lawyer named Linda Leali, for example, recentlyleft her 12-year associate position at White & Case after she was passed up for a promotion to partner. Leali’s inability to make partner was, sadly, not surprising. White & Case’s Miami office—which currently has 25 partners—has promoted only one female partner in the last 25 years. Leali said that her “best chance for both professional and personal success was to venture out with [her] new law partner” to form Alderman & Leali in Miami Shores.
Additionally, WilmerHale, one of the most prestigious names in BigLaw, is facing a $5 million lawsuit after the termination of one of its female employees. Pamela Levinson worked for WilmerHale for four years and was allegedly terminated for taking four-and-a-half months paid leave to take care of her newly adopted daughter. This was a surprise to Ms. Levinson, especially as she has received positive performance reviews from her superiors and was recommended for promotion by four of five partners.
Evidence, both anecdotal and scientific, unfortunately shows that gender inequality is still prevalent in the legal professionBut why are women being passed up for partnership? Perhaps the reason is institutional. Law is considered a male-dominated field and large law firms have always been seen as a “boys’ club.” To promote gender equality, law firms should institute initiatives to encourage a level playing field. Such gender equality initiatives could include programs directed toward the promotion of female mentorship and business growth, the development of family-friendly workplaces, and generous maternity leaves. However, law firms currently are not incentivized to provide these programs or make exceptions for females because it is not economical.
Another reason for the stagnation in female partnership positions could be attributed to the female mentality. Debora Spar, president of Barnard College, argues that the reason women are working for major corporations but not leading them is because women idealistically believe that they can have it all: they can have engaging careers, a beautiful family and an amazing life. She asserts that females “need to acknowledge that they cannot do it alone. Men must help.” By abandoning this myth of perfection and involving men in the dialogue, women will be able to redistribute the overwhelming weight of household responsibility to allow for more equality in the workplace.
Even though the reason for gender inequality is unclear, the data is: female lawyers are not promoted as often as male lawyers. For there to be change, law firms and women need to address these issues to ensure that the dream of partnership becomes a reality for more women.