A more subtle question is raised by the comments to the PrawfsBlawg posts that I respond to below. The comments point out that many male law professors have wives that choose to stay at home. As I was thinking about whether that statement fit with my friends, I noticed that many (if not most) of my male law professor friends with non-working spouses have ex-lawyer spouses. From time to time I have wondered why more female lawyers than male lawyers become ex-lawyers.
In Houston, I was part of a book club comprising eight female lawyers of roughly the same law school graduation date (1993 or 1994) that all began their careers at the same large law firm. When I left Houston in 2003, of these eight friends, two were partners at large law firms, two stayed at home with children, two were part-time, one was an associate, and one was me. I believe by now one part-time lawyer and the one associate have also chosen to stay home with children. Of the two partners, one was unmarried and the other had children after she made partner. Can it be that only one in four female lawyers remain employed full-time in legal services after 12 years?
I have two hypotheses, one not very controversial and one possibly too controversial.
First, the market for high-achieving female lawyers seems to have some problems. In talking to my friends, I find that many ex-lawyers who stay at home would like to work more than they do and that most current mommy lawyers would like to work less than they do. Very few viable part-time legal jobs are available. In large law firms, my friends tell me that they take a pay cut to go "part-time" so that they can leave at 5:30 and not feel as guilty, even though they work at home. Faced with this binary choice, many women choose to stay at home. We have a friend who started his own law firm by calling our large-firm female friends on maternity leave and offering them a part-time package at his firm where they are guaranteed no more than 30 hours a week of non-travelling legal work at competitive hourly wages. He knows they will not get that deal at their law firm and that he can tap into this treasure of unused, valuable legal services capacity.
I discovered that for me in the practice of law, there were three considerations: hours worked; salary paid; and sophistication of work. No job gives you all three in optimal amounts: low hours, high salary, high sophistication of work. The best you can hope for is two out of three, and you choose which two. So, I have friends who are part-time at banks or insurance companies who will tell me that they have low hours and high salary, but fairly mechanical work. Obviously, my friends who are partners now have high salary and high sophistication of work. I have chosen to have flexible hours, medium salary, but high sophistication of work, and I think my option was unique. Few flexible hours jobs have high sophistication of work.
The second hypothesis is a little more controversial, but is not meant to be judgmental. These days, as in all other times, some women do not dream of having life-long careers. They dream of staying at home with their family. Just as a generation ago, women of middle-class or upper-middle-class backgrounds went to college even though they intended to marry and not have careers, I think some women go to law school never intending to practice law long-term. When I was growing up, this phenomenon was referred to as women getting an MRS degree in college. Perhaps as the age for starting families gets higher among educated women, the JD is the new MRS. (OK, I can see that being quoted out of context.) Intelligent women are going to law school not to prepare for a life-long vocation but to gain useful and interesting knowledge, practice a few years, and then turn their attentions elsewhere. However, part of telling human beings that they can be anything they want to be has to include respecting women's choices to be actualized in whatever sphere they choose.
However, if women are exiting the legal profession not out of design but out of a lack of options, then the legal profession should see that as an opportunity to capture that unused human capital.
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1. Posted by J Squire on April 15, 2005 @ 14:50 | Permalink
Anecdotally, I'd say that for "intelligent women" a JD appears to be a ticket to jobs/careers that have a relatively high tolerance for stepping out of the rat race for a period of time. Your peers may be too early in the cycle to have "gone back" after the kids are older, or maybe it doesn't really happen any more for lawyers than other career choices, but the perception ("you can always hang out a shingle on day") exists.
So, I suggest that women do "prepare for a life-long vocation" but one that may permit a break to pursue other goals.
2. Posted by Christine Hurt on April 15, 2005 @ 15:02 | Permalink
Great point! My peers aren't in that portion of the cycle, but definitely a law degree can allow women in some fields to step out and then back in again. It also allows for a fairly high salary-per-hour. I have a mommy friend who does contract work for $100/hour, which is not easy in other fields.
That being said, I do have friends that have told me that they never planned on practicing law long-term, so I don't think that your experience negates the hypothesis that some women do go to law school without long-term career expectations.
3. Posted by Ted on April 15, 2005 @ 15:36 | Permalink
I think there's sexist societal attitudes at play: it's socially acceptable for women to drop out of the rat race and be a stay-at-home parent, and rarely socially acceptable for men to do so. Women who marry thus have that additional choice, and many of them prefer to exercise this option. Whether this makes matters easier or harder for women who stay on the career path is a different question.
4. Posted by Laura on April 15, 2005 @ 15:47 | Permalink
I've certainly had my say over at Prawfsblawg, but I'd just like to second Ted's opinion about socially acceptable roles. When I tell people that not only might my lawyer husband move cross-country to help me pursue my academic aspirations, but it is also possible that *he* might be the primary parent, working part-time, jaws drop. Even people in my peer group, ostensibly "more enlightened," are surprised. It's a little depressing, actually.
5. Posted by Scott Moss on April 15, 2005 @ 16:54 | Permalink
Another possibility, of course, is that gender discrimination deters women from remaining in the workplace. I'm not talking about rampant physically abusive harassment; I mean that female law firm associates are maybe: 10% less likely to be taken under the wing of the (mostly male) partners, 10% less likely to be given a role on "the big case," 10% less likely to be given pivotal "speaking roles" with clients or in court, 10% less likely to have their work subjectively evaluated as "superstar quality" when there are no tangible metrics of how good your briefwriting is, 10% less likely to be given the benefit of the doubt when they make the mistakes that all young lawyers make. I've seen that a zillion times in the legal and business world, and there's extensive psychological evidence that we process information in gender- and race-biased ways.
If women's career expectations are, on average, 10% lower than men's, then you would expect rational decisionmaking to lead more women than men to drop out of the workforce. That is, an associate thinking of exiting the rat race (whether ceasing to work outside the home, or just going part-time, or whatever) is more likely to exit if the prospects of partnership or interesting assignments are lower.
I do think all these other considerations play a role (it's less socially acceptable for men to stay home; women's preferences may vary somewhat from men's, perhaps just due to socialization or perhaps not). But I'm convinced that subtle discrimination decreases women's expected long-term career payoffs somewhat, which may explain the a substantial portion of the gender disparity.
6. Posted by Christine on April 15, 2005 @ 17:21 | Permalink
So, I think Laura and Ted are making the point that in two-career couples, there will come a point where one career has to give and so that will be the woman because it is socially acceptable for her to be that person. But what precipitates the crisis that mandates a change and why can't the market respond?
I'm also not sure if either gender has the corner on social acceptance. Let me tell you about dropping off your child at school and you're the only mom not in workout clothes. Real moms don't wear black. I'm sure that being the only dad in workout clothes has its own special aura, too.
7. Posted by Ethan Leib on April 15, 2005 @ 21:00 | Permalink
I hope we can get some of your readers at PrawfsBlawg. For some reason, we seem to be drawing self-satisfied men who think they are doing their part by supporting their wives' decisions to stay at home and calling anyone who questions the routine nature of this "choice" paternalistic and too-PC.
8. Posted by Nate Oman on April 16, 2005 @ 9:53 | Permalink
I was recently on a panel at a conference for law students, that included a panel on women, families, and the practice of law. I asked one of the women on the panel what men in the practice of law could do to help women. Her answer was the the single best thing that men at big law firms could do was to take advantage of paternity leave and part-time work options to take time with young children. Her point was that many firms have these programs in place and de jure there is no stigma attached to them, but in reality they are viewed by promotion committees as programs for women who are not serious about making partner. She said that flexible options could only start providing real options when they were no longer viewed as a female thing.
As for your controversial suggestions, I have a number of friends who have told me explicitly that they got their JD because they thought law school and a couple of years of practice would be interesting, and they thought that they could get back into law practice when their kids got older, but they had no intention of sweating it out on the partner track. I've no idea how representative they are, but take my data points for what they are worth.
9. Posted by Ann Bartow on April 16, 2005 @ 14:09 | Permalink
One point that folks need to be aware of is the flaws in the AALS hiring data. I don't have the time to get into a detailed explanation here, but basically many law schools give nontenure track people the title of Asst Prof, Assoc Prof or even Prof. They argue they do this becuase it is helpful to the people in these positions, and that is hard to dispute, but at the same time, folks who are counted as "Asst. Prof" year after year but are not tenure track tend to be women, and this makes the numbers look a lot better than they actually are in terms of the progess women have made on law faculties. I'd love to see all clinicians and LRW teachers be tenured/tenure track but to count them the same as tenured and tenure track people is to skew the statistics in a way that makes it look like women are 50% of new TENURE TRACK hires when the actual number is about half that.
10. Posted by Ann Bartow on April 16, 2005 @ 14:43 | Permalink
Sorry to be so windy, but couldn't resist making another observation, and that is my amazement that cognizable number of women can afford to stay home after paying for law school. Of course if they have the money and the desire they should follow their hearts and desires, but are there many women like this? I had to borrow A LOT of money to get through law school and spent ten years after graduation paying it back at 9% interest, an amount that would have otherwise purchased a decent house in amny communities. The minute I got my loans paid off I needed to start putting funds away for my son's education, and he was already school age. I don't have too many friends who didn't need to take out enormous loans to finance law school, or that dropped out of the labor force, and I assume this is not a coincidence.