March 21, 2006
Asking "Why Aren't More Women Law Partners" to All the Wrong People
Posted by Christine Hurt

Quick:  As a percentage, are there more female tenured professors at Yale or female law partners in law firms?

The answer:  About the same.  Yesterday's NYT reported that the percentage of partners at law firms that are female is 17%.  This month's Yale Alumni Magazine (loaned to me by a colleague) reports that 18.7% of tenured Arts & Sciences faculty are female.  As the NYT points out, in the last ten years, female attorneys have made small gains on this figure, with female law partnership figures increasing from 13% to 17%, even though law schools have been graduating males and females in equal numbers for almost twenty years.  Similarly, the Yale magazine article notes that U.S. universities "are increasingly conferring comparable numbers of PhDs on men and women.

I think reading the two articles in tandem is an interesting contrast.  The NYT article obviously doesn't want to be another "Mommy Track" article, so it ponders other reasons why women exit the field.  It must be the competitive environment.  Lack of mentoring.  Unwillingness to self-promote.  Billable hours.  In-group bias.  The Yale article is more blunt -- it's the mommy thing.  Not environment, or mentoring, or of course, billable hours.  I would imagine that the "culture" at an English department at Yale and the corporate law department at a law firm are quite different.  So, if we're going to start blaming things on law firm culture, maybe we need more evidence. 

Why doesn't someone just do an empirical study of the situation?  Follow a graduating class of about ten or so years ago and see where the women are.  See who is a partner, and if they have kids.  See who exited, and if they have kids.  Then make the argument that it's not the kids.  It's the culture or whatever.  Also, NYT, if you really want to know why women exit law firm practice, ask them.  Don't ask the female partners or the male managing partners why they think that the women exited.  I was looking for the author to have interviewed female attorneys with tons of potential who exited firm life to find out why they exited.  However, the author instead chose to interview law firm partners (most female, some male) to ask them why more female attorneys didn't stick around to make partner.  There response was that surely there were a number of factors, firms probably weren't doing as good a job as could at retention, yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever.  This is not a mystery that is unsolvable, just a mystery that can't be solved by looking where the light is good.

And of course, once you solve the mystery of why women exit law firms, then you have to figure out if this problem could or should be fixed.  I would posit that a smart law firm should be able to figure out how to exploit valuable unused human capital in a way that benefits the firm.

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