By Michelle Hugard • February 20, 2010•Writers in Residence
A few weeks ago, I was chatting with a couple of my female law school friends. These two women are highly successful students, at the top of their class, and incredibly smart, funny, and talented. In preparation for this column, I had wanted to test my suspicions on what female law students think about corporate law and the attorneys who practice it. These two women were the perfect subjects.
Between discussing up-in-coming law school events and legal accounting classes, I posed this question: “What comes to mind when you think of a thriving, high-powered business lawyer?” And, without hesitation, my law school friends began to describe to me their idea of the “typical” business attorney – an affluent, designer suit-clad middle-aged male.
For me, the interesting point of this conversation was not that these ladies automatically made assumptions about the wealth of my hypothetical professional. Nor was it particularly revolutionary that they made general assumptions regarding age and race. No, what was interesting to me was that these law students, these highly intelligent and qualified female law students automatically assumed that my hypothetical corporate lawyer was a man. And to be honest, the same thought had crossed my mind.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t want to automatically envision the high profile female corporate attorney. I know she exists. Further, it’s not as though she is completely absent in the media. Every few years, her character enters television's prime time. She is highly intelligent, powerful, and exquisitely dressed. Her hair is always perfectly coiffed, and she effortlessly spouts smart, witty comments. But who are the real life versions of these women? Where do they work? What do they do? And, most importantly, how did they get there?
This column is devoted to finding these women and allowing them to share their stories. Join me as I explore the corporate landscape and the role of women in it. But before I introduce the female players, let’s introduce their playing field...
February Post: The Corporate Arena
Most of us have heard the general statistics. According to the American Bar Association's, "Current Glance at Women in the Law," 47.1% of all law students are female. Overall, women comprise approximately 31% of the current legal profession. In private practice, women account for 46.6% of summer associates, 46.7% of associates, and only 19.2% of partners. In Fortune 500 corporations, women account for 15% of General Counsel positions. In Fortune 501-1000 companies, women comprise 15.2% of General Counsel positions. Although the numbers have increased substantially over the last few years, women lawyers make 80.5% of male lawyers’ salaries. Gender imbalance also exists in legal academia. According to a 2007-2008 Association of American Law Schools (AALS) report, only 36.9% of law teachers are women.
The ABA and AALS statistics are particularly relevant to female attorneys working in corporate law. Of the legal sectors, corporate law still remains predominantly an “old boys club.” Academics have noted that although substantial achievements have been made in professional settings, when women enter corporate firms, subtle barriers to their success remain. These obstacles not only create frustration, but also keep women who are “talented at playing the corporate game” from advancing to prestigious positions similar to those held by their male colleagues. (Amy E. Decker, Women in Corporate Law: Rewriting the Rules, 4 J. Gender L. 511. 512 (1995)).
These issues are not limited to women in corporate America. A recent set of interviews by Australia’s The Law Report noted that although nearly 56% of all Australian law graduates were women, they represented only 15% of partners in major corporate law firms. One senior partner, who was male, astoundingly remarked that the best recruits at his firm were the young women. They were “incredibly bright” and performed well in the interview. However, the firm worried that by hiring the most qualified candidates, i.e. the women, a gender imbalance would exist or, worse, that “the women would take over completely.”
The important takeaway from these statistics and stories is that while women have made great strides in recent years, inequalities still remain. Despite these issues, a few female powerhouses have overcome these obstacles and have thrived in the corporate law setting. Those are the women I’m looking to find. I want to hear their stories, and I hope you do too.
This year, I am going to search the nation to find various incarnations of the successful female corporate attorney. I will profile “The Managing Partners,” “The In-house Counsel,” “The Trailblazers,” “The Newcomers,” and many more. As a third year law student, I have an immense amount to learn about the realities of the corporate law profession. I have questions, and I’m looking for answers. Join me in my search.
March Post Preview. Meet “The Academic:” An interview with Professor Afra Afsharipour of UC Davis School of Law.