Forum Finds: Women in the Legal Profession

Editor's Note: Ms. JD's forums have been an important source of advice and inspiration for many women in the legal profession.  The "Forum Finds" series is dedicated to bringing these pearls of wisdom to light.  As always, you can connect with us onFacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn with your questions! 

On July 19th, 2007, ARG asked: Female Superiors. I am a rising 2L and anxiety about upcoming fall recruiting is in full swing at my office this summer.  A few days ago, we were discussing how to avoid discrimination by finding female-friendly firms.  Someone suggested looking at what the female/male partner ratio is and one woman piped in that she would never want to work for a female partner.  I have heard this statement once before.  Both women went to law school straight from college and have never held a full-time job, let alone had the opportunity to work with either a male or female boss on a daily basis.  So how do they decide to make this resolution? Is there something I'm missing?

Both times I was stunned to silence (rare for me) and my perception of them was permanently damaged.  How can women fight stereotypes and discrimination, when our brightest and most ambitious young women are attacking the most successful women.

 I don't understand where this comes from and whether or not it is limited to these two young women or if it is common.  I have worked in several different offices, including law offices, and have had male and female bosses that were horrible and terrific.   

Any ideas on how to respond without attacking her, if this ever comes up again? (hopefully, it won't)

sintecho says: 

First, I've also heard this accusation before.  The theory seems to be that either 1) women have to work harder to get/stay where they are, which means that they require more from those they are supervising and/or have less time to mentor than a male partner of equal standing would because they have less time and more pressure or 2) women think back on how hard it was for them to get where they are and view this difficulty as some sort of hazing ritual (almost as if they resent that it might be easier for upcoming women attorneys and don't want to contribute to that smoother ride since they after all didn't have anyone help them and were able to succeed) or 3) women are threatened by other women because of the view that leadership and positions of power for women are scarce and finite, so if they help a woman to succeed, that woman might somehow challenge their position.

These attitudes are clearly all wrong (except the first maybe because women do seem to have to work harder and might be more exacting bosses, but why is it a bad thing to work for someone who demands your best?).  The more women who get ahead, the more places there are for women, especially if women who succeed help the women who come next.

I've had really supportive female mentors, both at my firm and at law school. I've also run across women lawyers who weren't interested in mentoring me, but there have been men who haven't wanted to mentor me either.   Maybe there's something wrong with the expectation that all women have a duty to mentor other women or show them favorable treatment just because they are women?

In terms of your experience ARG, can you ask the women you were talking with why they have that perception?  Maybe in hearing what they have to say, you could have a conversation and point out any generalizations they might be making, or you could talk about your own positive experience with women mentors.  In my experience, when I'm trying to influence someone's opinion, the best approach isn't to tell them that they're wrong but rather to let them realize for themselves that they might be mistaken by pointing out (discreetly) flaws in their reasoning.  Isn't that what lawyers are best at?


On November 20th, 2007, firefly asked: Dealing with resentful women staff. I am working at a very successful Honolulu law firm, which sees itself as very progressive.  Indeed, ratio of women:men lawyers is quite good.  However, 95% of staff are women, and the majority did not go to college.  Whether they went to college or not, the resentment of the women staff, even those in "management", toward the women non-partner attorneys is palpable, and ranges from downright sabotaging to malicious gossip and outright lies.  The women partners are oblivious to this problem because they, like all men (partners or entry level), are treated with great deference by the staff.  One obvious source of resentment is money:  it's very expensive to live here, and attorneys generally make double-triple staff even at the low end.  To top it off, most of the women attorneys are married (to other professionals) so the income disparity can be as much as 10x or more.  Very few staff are married to professional husbands; many our single parents.  How does one deal with such insidious resentment?  The partners are no help at all, as the staff has learned to be quite adept at their passive aggressive resentful behavior.

lawblogger says:

I absolutely know what you are talking about, and I admit that I have been frustrated many a time to see the office secretary (even if she has been working at the office for literally 20x longer than I have) shopping online and giving me instructions on how to do something myself that technically is within her job description. I also agree that even if the male new hires are also told where to stick it if they try to actually get a senior secretary to do something for them, more deference and respect is shown to them. Part of me gets it though. After all, especially for the older women administrative staff, a lot of the opportunities that were available to me educationally were not available to them. The pressure to get married young was replaced with pressure to get an education, so I'm lucky to be in a position where even if I am a single mom someday, I'll be able to support my family financially without too much stress. I can understand, given this disparity, why some of the female staff might feel resentful (or even jealous), particularly if they've devoted decades to a career that has topped them out at a level where they are still expected to be at the beck and call of someone who is young enough to be their daughter (or even granddaughter). For all these reasons, I try to give credit where credit is due and show a lot of respect and deference to the older female support staff. If I have time, I do things myself that I technically could ask them to do because I find that then when I really need something done, they do it for me with goodwill (and more efficiently than they do it for my colleagues who try to pull rank on them). Finally, I treat them as equals and take the time to get to know them. I buy lunch occasionally or bring in candy or sweets. It sounds stupid, but simple interpersonal touches can often melt the resentment and turn administrative foes into really helpful co-workers. I agree that it is still annoying that you have to cajole people who are hired to help you to do their jobs well, but if you think about what they are getting paid and what their job satisfaction must be like (and pay heed to the old "respect your elders" adage), then I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

sintecho says: 

An interesting post on this topic can be found here.

Peg says: 

You couch this forum post from the angle that the support staff women may be jealous of you.  I would say that you might consider that it isn't jealousy at all.  For some it may be that they actually think you are out of place and that women shouldn't be lawyers.  They may actually feel like women belong in the support staff role and your presence outside of that is making their life more difficult to handle.

Here is how I would deal with it.  Kill them with kindness.  Take time to really ask them about their weekends and their families.  Ask them for advice.  Compliment their shoes or their earrings, if either are nice.  Approach them face to face when you need their support rather than calling/emailing/or yelling from your office.  Never, never, never talk about them to others in the office.  Don't gossip or share your frustrations with them with anyone that may have contact with them.  Perhaps, you're already keen on this last tip which is why you posted here! smile


On October 20th, 2009, JSilverbrook asked: Women in the Workplace Panel Discussion Recap. For those of you who missed the “Women in the Workplace”panel discussion this afternoon, here is a little recap of what was discussed.

Our speakers were Bambi Faivre Walters, Professor AngelaBanks, and Shannon Manning. 

Bambi Faivre Walters is an attorney specializing in patent and intellectual property law.  She earned a B.S. in Systems Engineering from the University of Virginia, with a concentration in Environmental and Water Resources Engineering.  She was an engineer with the United States Naval Sea Support Services for the Atlantic Fleet (NAVSEACENLANT), and then she earned her J.D. from Tulane University Law School.  She was a product liability associate with McGlinchey Stafford in New Orleans, Louisiana. She currently conducts her solo practice in Williamsburg, VA.

Professor Angela Banks teaches contracts and immigration law at William and Mary Law.  She graduated from Spelman College, then earned a Master of Letters in Sociology from Oxford University.  Finally,she received her J.D. from Harvard Law School.  After law school, she was legal advisor to Judge Gabrielle Kirk McDonald at the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal; an associate at Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering in Washington, DC; and as law clerk for Judge Carlos F. Lucero of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.

Shannon Manning is a Newport News Assistant City Attorney. She attended Dartmouth College, and then received her J.D. from University of North Carolina School of Law.  She previously served as the Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney in the City of Portsmouth.  Then she wasa Staff Attorney at the Virginia Office for Protection and Advocacy, focusing on disability rights law.  She's been Assistant City Attorney in Newport News for nearly 3 years. 

Incremental Progress for Women in the Legal Industry:

Bambi Faivre Walters kicked off the panel by discussing a variety of statistics from a study done by the Commission on Women in the Profession:http://www.abanet.org/women/ChartingOurProgress.pdf.

The statistics demonstrate that women are making incremental progress in the legal industry. Between 1995 and 2003:

·     The percentage of law school entrants who were women increased from 45% to 50%

·     The percentage of women in tenured positions at law schools increased from 5.9% to 25.1%;

·     The percentage of women partners in major law firmsincreased from 12.9% to 16.3%.

·     The percentage of women general counsel in Fortune 500companies increased from 4.% or 15%.

·     The percentage of women in the federal judiciary at the Court of Appeals level increased from 13% to 17.4%

·     The percentage of women in the federal judiciary at theU.S. District Court level increased from 12% or 16.2%

Despite the progress, disparities still exist between males and females in the legal profession. The most drastic disparity is in salary level.  On average, women make $20,000 less than men for the same number of billable hours. 

Perceptions of Women in the Work Place:

The legal industry remains a male dominated field—this is especially true for the most competitive job tracks. The key is for women to do their jobs as well as they can, and to demonstrate that they have “the goods”to rise in the ranks.

Panelists cautioned that young attorneys should be careful about how they utilize the statistics and stories they hear from seasoned female attorneys.  The information should be kept in the back of your head to help you identify red flags, but should NOT become a psychological barrier to your success.

Balancing Life and Work: The Unique Demands of Motherhood on Female Attorneys:

The panelists also discussed the importance of balancing life and work (this becomes increasingly important as women begin their families).  Many female lawyers require more control over their schedules.  The demands of motherhood make it difficult for female attorney to put in the same number of hours as their male counterparts.  As a result, you see two trends:

First, there is a disincentive for women to start their own private practices.  This is especially true for those lawyers who wish to have a robust litigation practice.  It is nearly impossible to be a litigator with your own practice—in order to be an effective advocate,more than one attorney is needed to meet the demands of complex litigation. 

The second trend is a flight to government work.  Government jobs offer a limited number of work hours per week.  It is also perceived as a more egalitarian work environment.  Panelist Shannon Manning also noted that jobs in the government are often better suited for females who wish to work for a cause that operates in the interest of justice rather than in the interest of a particular client.  When you work in private practice, you have to represent your client even if you find his conduct or moral character deplorable.  Manning also argued that there were more opportunities for advancement in the government. Unlike a large firm, the government is not concerned about outward appearances, political connections, the amount of revenue you can bring into the firm, etc.   

The panelists also discussed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The act makes it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.  If you are interested in finding out more information about the act, or pregnancy discrimination more broadly, please visit:http://www.eeoc.gov/facts/fs-preg.html.

What Female Law Students and Attorneys Can Do:

All of the panelists emphasized the importance of networks—both formal and informal. Keep up with colleagues and law school peers.  There are many jobs you can only find out about via word of mouth.  Law Students and young attorneys should contact their local bar association about mentorship programs for female law students and attorneys. If your local bar does have an existing mentorship program, suggest that they start one (you can look to North Carolina’s mentorship program as a model:http://lawstudentdivision.ncbar.org/).

Also, don’t be afraid to reach out to male attorneys as mentors.  It’s also important to know the politics of your work environment.  Oftentimes a male partner might be the best resource for navigating your firm.  You should be open to networking and reaching out to different types of people—the key is that you feel comfortable and can trust the individual you are speaking to! 


On October 25th, 2007, Kate Jones asked: Old fat lawyer interested in talking online with younger women lawyers***. Posted in October 2007.  I graduated law school in 1977, was a law clerk, and then started job hunting. I wanted to be a litigator.  At this point in history, male litigators were very frank about not wanting to hire women.  I finally got a job at a small but high rated plaintiff's pi firm where the partners were willing to give a newcomer a chance.  I was genuinely bad at the job (clerkship experience didn't translate into private practice street smarts) and the partner I was working for traveled all the time and didn't have time or energy to mentor me.  So they fired me (they were kind, but I was out) and I couldn't get another job with any private firm (the scarlet letter of termination plus being female was enough to eliminate any chance I might otherwise have had).  I hung out my shingle, got a part time gig with the public defender's office to pay the bills, and went grimly to work building a practice.  This worked out okay.  I eventually recognized that I was a decent trial lawyer but no Clarence Darrow and I wanted kids, so I shifted to appellate work and lived happily ever after. Today I'm in my fifties, have two teenagers, and work from a home office as a sole practitioner.  I work about 3/4 of full time and make about $80,000/year net of overhead which is pretty good for where I live (deep south, not major metropolitan area).  I do about half plaintiff pi and about half commercial litigation, mostly appeals but I still do an occasional deposition or court appearance. 

When I was battling the male chauvinist pigs of my generation, I always assumed that once I pried the door open, younger women would storm in.  But it didn't happen.  When I go to court today, there are women lawyers, all right. But the women lawyers consist of a few young lawyerettes in their twenties - and me.   I used to be the only woman and now I'm the only ugly old woman ... sigh.

I've apparently busted some kind of glass ceiling but I'm not quite sure what I did or how I did it,  Most people don't think of me as "successful" because I work at  home, don't have a lot of spare cash cause I'm a single parent and all my money goes to my teenagers (private schools cost a FORTUNE), and I wear jeans and a t shirt except when I have to go to court. 

I've been wondering what goes on with young women lawyers.  What do the law firms do with young women lawyers these days, kill them and eat them on their thirtieth birthday? Because that seems to be when they all disappear ... It's like some kind of science fiction movie.   

So this website is quite fascinating to me.  Who are you, where are you, what's going on with you, and can I help? 

Jessie says:

I think I'm probably what you're talking about when you refer to "laweryettes."  I'm in my mid-twenties, I just graduated from law school, and I take great joy from my shoe collection.  I hope my appearance wouldn't lead you to believe I'm not serious about my legal career and about following in your footsteps as a woman not afraid to pursue my own goals regardless of discrimination or expectations.  

I'm clerking for a federal judge in Memphis this year. After this I'm hoping to pursue a career in the public sector doing public finance work (stilettos aside, I'm a tax nerd at heart). I went to law school to do anti-poverty policy work, and I see tax as a field in which you can do that, but few liberal women like me have tried. I'm hoping to have a family, but right now my career comes first.

So that's me. I agree that there are more visible examples of 20-something and 50-something female attorneys than anything in between. Maybe the "opt-out" is partially to blame? It seems to me that your generation really fought for career advancement, but that those who came directly after you not only experienced a backlash but a sense of disappointment when "having it all" really just meant not sleeping. I feel like this newest generation of women is more realistic about the challenges of personal balance, hence this site.

For what it's worth, your story sound like a pretty great success. I hope you know how valuable and inspiring your example is.

sintecho says:

Thanks so much for offering to give advice! I have actually thought a lot about trying to go into solo practice, but it seems so daunting. If you go to work for a firm, everything is sort of done for you, and you have partners or older associates checking your work, so there is a safety net in place where you know you won't make any fatal errors. Solo practice always intimidated me because it seems like you would need to know a lot of things about a lot of different types of law. Did you start out only taking certain cases in certain disciplines? How did you figure out what to do? How did you find clients? I know a lot of this stuff may seem self-evident, but I assure you that it isn't, and a do-it-yourself guide to how to start a solo practice would be really useful to someone like me. Thanks so much for your time!

CC_NC says:

I think a lot of women would enjoy hearing your comments about your career and the choices you made. I'm wondering about your observation of either lawywerettes or old-fogies being in the courtroom. Do you, or other readers, think that might be indicative of the choices women have to make when they have a family? So maybe lawyers in their 30-40s are staying out of the courtroom on purpose to spend time with familes? Comments anyone?

Appealing in Nevada says:

OFL - I am ten years behind you - but only ten - a 1987 grad.  I live in Nevada, the land of opportunity for lawyers. I spent 20 years choosing positions that allowed me time with my daughter.  Now that she's grown, I've gone the big firm route (big by my standards - 50-60 lawyers), where my writing ability has gained me of counsel status.

Like you, however, I notice that female lawyers my age are the exception, not the rule.  My c lass was more than 50% women - where did they all go?


***Kate Jones posted a followup thread: Old fat lawyer realizes she gave her thread a stupid title. I posted my thread and then logged back on to read it over.  When I did, I realized that the title - read apart from the thread - sounds like some ancient pervert is looking for some type of unusual online sexual relationship. 

Oh, dear.  You have to realize that during most of my life, there was no such thing as a blog ...   

Can we pretend like I called the thread something more intelligent? 


These related Ms. JD articles may also be helpful: The Minority Report: Dealing with Workplace Discrimination, Women Battle Law Firm Bias, Estrogen in the Courtroom: Working for the Woman

Kate Hartman is currently a junior at the Bentley School in Lafayette, California, as well as a Ms. JD Board Associate. The Board Associate Program aims to give young women who are either interested in non-profit management and social enterprise or in law the opportunity to work directly with a Ms. JD Board Member. Through that work, these women will get the opportunity to see how a non-profit works and a taste of what the legal profession is like.

Write a comment

Please login to comment

Remember Me

Become a Member

FREE online community for women in the legal profession.



Subscribe to receive regular updates, news, and events from Ms. JD.

Connect with us

Follow or subscribe