May 02, 2007
Why Aren't We There Yet?
Posted by Lisa Fairfax

Today's Boston Globe reports on a study to be released today about the persistance of the gap between men and women in the legal profession.  The Globe opens with this statement:

"For women, the law remains a frustrating profession.  Female lawyers continue to face intractable challenges in their attempts to become partners, causing them to abandon law firm careers -- and the legal profession entirely -- at a dramatically higher rate than men. . ."

The study, conducted by the MIT Workplace Center and several bar associations surveyed 1,000 Massachusetts men and women lawyers in the state's 100 largest firms.  The study highlights the gap between the experience of men and women in the profession.  According to the report, men and women enter the law firm in essentially equal numbers, but women leave the partnership track in far greater numbers than men.  As a result, only 17% of law firm partners are women.  The study finds that 31% of women associates leave private practice entirely, as compared with 18% of men. 

But the clear message behind the study is the difficulties women continue to confront balancing work-family issues.  According to the Globe, the study finds that 35% of women with children leave private practice entirely as compared with 15% of men with children.  Moreover, nearly 40% of women with children have worked part-time at some point, while almost no men have done so.  Then too, when women leave private practice, they tend to seek out work with more flexible schedules such as careers with nonprofits or government agencies.  Despite these attempts, some 46% of women who leave the law firm, leave the practice of law entirely, while fewer than one-third of men who leave law firms also leave the practice of law entirely.  A summary of the report from the MIT Workplace Center notes that nearly 70% of men with children have spouses or partners with less work-related commitments.  Women, on the other hand, tend to have spouses or partners with equal or greater career commitments.

The Globe also notes the important consequences of these gender gaps for the presence of women in leadership positions.  Indeed, as women either leave the law firm or the law entirely, the pool for talented women judges, law professors and law firm managers either stagnates or shrinks.

The study is a depressing commentary on our profession, but hardly a new one.  One key problem is that for years people in the profession have clung to the notion that as women enter law schools and law firms in greater numbers, they will ascend to leadership positions in greater numbers.  This notion has enabled many in the profession to be satisfied with making changes at the margins without any real adjustment in the law firm culture as a whole--which tends to be problematic for both men and women.  This recent study only confirms what we already know and what many other studies have confirmed--the changes at the margins are not working and as a result the legal profession, particularly law firms, are losing talented women. 

The question is, will this study do anything more than its predecessors to prompt genuine change in the profession or will it create a flurry of intense discussion followed by business as usual?

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