Last night I attended a panel discussion sponsored by a women’s organization at my law school. I thought this would be a great opportunity to meet women who had successfully navigated different legal career paths and perhaps even tell them a bit about Ms. JD. Unfortunately, I left the discussion with the strange feeling that everyone in the room but me was suffering from serious denial.
When a partner of a large firm was asked about sexism in the firm, she denied knowledge of any such incidents, despite having been with the firm for more than ten years. I couldn’t help but wonder whether the firm was paying her to be there, stuffing any indecencies under the carpet. When the same woman was asked about balancing family life and work life, she admitted having no children herself, but stressed that her firm treats women with children extremely well. She said her firm has no problems with full-time lawyer/mothers leaving work to drive their children places. My skepticism was growing by the minute.
The partner divulged that she loves her work and is always eager to pile on more cases and clients to her workload. She told us the one piece of advice she would like to give us as we embark upon our careers is to always say yes. She said she had unexpected and wonderful experiences just because she was always willing to say yes as an associate when partners asked her to help them out on a particular case or issue. I couldn’t help but wonder, though, if she was always saying yes, at what point did it become expected of her to always do this incredible amount of work? When was she really just being walked all over, and what would happen when/if she ever wanted to set some boundaries? She was less than receptive to students’ questions along these lines.
The only panelist with children was a judge who told us that in our careers we are going to have to have a strong sense of our priorities. She said she always knew her children would come first, and she made that perfectly clear to her family. As I listened to her spiel, I couldn’t help but think, “What about wanting both a vibrant, busy legal career and children at the same time? Is it possible?” She seemed to think not. But she also seemed to think we are still living in the 1960’s, where women are mothers first, and whatever else they choose to fill their time with comes second.
The only panelist I felt had any idea about the real world was a younger woman who had left her big firm job after two years to work for the career center at her law school alma mater. This woman seemed so happy with her decision, despite the prestige and excitement of big law life. She stressed the importance of consistently reevaluating our careers and being open to detours off the path we always thought we wanted.
As I walked to my car I wondered whether I was right to be disappointed that these women didn’t have any unfortunate stories to share with us. For a second I thought maybe my skepticism was unfounded, and maybe they really were telling the truth about not encountering sexism as they rose through the ranks of the legal profession. But then I realized that the way the law partner had stressed that her firm allowed mother-lawyers to leave work early to chauffer their children around showed that things for women are indeed better now than they were when she began her career. And the same must be true for the judge, who was among only a dozen female law students in her class. But that doesn’t mean the problems are gone, and it doesn’t mean they can/should be ignored or denied.